Shaping the next 40 years for Solomon Islands
At the breakfast meeting organized by the Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday 27 June, the Prime Minister said he is optimistic about the next 40 years. I too share his optimism about the next 40 years and indeed believe that it offers huge possibilities. This shared view is held against the backdrop however of a cloud that hovers over the prospects that we will have difficulties to trade our products in the near future unless we are able to secure the same preferences that we currently enjoy as a Least Developed Country (LDC) potentially impinging on that future that we need to create for our future generation.
On the eve of the celebrations of 40 years since we became independent, we are being recommended for graduation from being an LDC to a Developing Country. While that gives us reason to applaud ourselves, the permutations that graduation implies for our trade particularly for our tuna and oil palm products are serious and could economically be crippling.
It could mean the closure of SolTuna, the demise of Noro township and the death nell on the prospects of Bina being developed as the second tuna processing hub for Solomon Islands. It is somewhat ironic that we should approach a period of time of our nationhood when we should be celebrating and taking account of the many positive things that have happened over the last 40 years with the prospect that we will perhaps somehow struggle in the next decade to trade unless we are able to stitch together trade deals on current terms.
We cannot help the fact that we have natural conditions that militate against us such as the relative isolation of our communities, the vastly disparate communities situated in areas far from urban areas, and the relatively harsh and humid conditions under which the majority of our peoples have to live and work. Our environmental and economic vulnerability exacerbate the cost of doing business which impinge on investments and have resulted in a narrowly based economy.
All these factors however are offset by an environment which others would die to have; a pristine environment, lush green forests, rich biodiversity and ecosystems, some of the rarest wildlife in the world, cool meandering rivers and streams, blue lagoons with a rich tapestry of sea life, some of the best diving spots in the world, and relatively warm, gentle and welcoming people.
As we look to the next 40 years, we should draw on the growing intellectual energy and drive of our young people who are shaping and influencing their destiny. We should produce many more Millicent Barty’s, and intertwine our development with the advantages that innovative technology can bring about so that we develop what President Bill Clinton described as the knowledge economy.
Mobile phone technology has penetrated most of the country and we are now connected with each other and with the outside world more than ever than at any time in our history. We have already used this platform to introduce mobile banking so people no longer have to travel to the urban centers to withdraw cash. In the urban areas, people can pay for their electricity needs using their mobile phones making the conduct of their business for utilities so much easier. With the arrival of the fiber optic cable next year, the sky will be the limit, and we are only going to be constrained by what finance we have available to us to fulfil that promise. As someone once said to me, with these kinds of things you can only be limited by your imagination.
Technology and a knowledge-based society should transform the way we develop ourselves in the next 40 years. We should draw on the intellectual horse power of international think tanks, research institutions, international businesses and build strategic partnerships with innovative forward-looking organizations to help us develop our natural resources. We need to explore instruments that empower resource owners and ensure that they receive their faire share of their resources.
In this regard, the Government should continue its role as a regulator but at the same time, it should become an incubator of private-public sector partnerships between resource owners and businesses. We have to move away from the situation with respect to the logging industry that we seemed to have become locked up in whereby the resources owners seem to have become subservient to foreign loggers, yet the resource owners own 100% of the natural resources.
The logging industry is a no brainer and can easily be turned around if we have the strength of character and political will to reorganize the forestry sector to rid it of the foreign loggers. As I write this article at Rakutu along the Munda to Noro road, an old Toyota Land Cruiser has just gone past driven by an Asian driver with around 6 other Asians sitting at the back of the vehicle. As much as we welcome foreign skilled labour, there is nothing that these Malaysian, Indonesian and Philippine workers do in the logging industry that cannot be done by Solomon Islanders.
I am not going to lament the way we have developed in the past 40 years. There has been so much good that has happened as well as a conflict that has taken us back some 20 years, but we cannot change the past. We can only learn from it and hope to that we put in place policies that will help us have that future that the Prime Minister wants for us in the next 40 years. For what it is worth here are some of the foundational changes that is critical to shaping that future:
Having a new political structure and electoral arrangements: our current political structure and electoral arrangements need to be changed. There has to be a better way to govern our country than the current political structure which is so unstable. Political instability has cost the country a lot of missed opportunities. We also need to a better way of electing our representatives to the provincial assembly and parliament. My brief observation of the recent Western Provincial Government elections is that it has got nothing to do with governing or government. It is rather sad to observe this. The country deserves better and no doubt a better system.
We have to be more inclusive and make provision for women and youths to be represented in the decision-making process. It is not about gender or youth engagement but abut ensuring that those who have a stake in the affairs of the country are able to participate effectively in decision-making in the country. We need a simple constitutional arrangement, supported by a strong administrative network that work at the grass level with our traditional elders and chiefs.
This does not necessarily entail making new laws. All it requires is a reorganization of the machinery of government by augmenting administrative oversight of the implementation of services at the grassroots. It requires simplification of government by peeling away the layers of governance whose effectiveness and efficacy are questionable. In this regard, I would argue that we need strong local and district administrative mechanisms, not elected representatives drawn from a system that has largely become a game; a competition amongst people; a time when people raise funds from candidates; a divisive forum where instead of drawing people together, divides them and creates disunity within communities.
Indigenization of the forestry industry: we need to adopt a new approach towards the development of natural resources particularly our forestry cover. In this regard, I would argue that we would need to undertake a study to capitalize the value of the natural cover of our forest and value it from all aspects of its usage including its biodiversity and ecosystem costs. From the capitalization of our forestry over, we should develop a new business model that entails the displacement of foreign involvement in this sector and put in in the hands of the resource owners. This should be supported by the establishment of a Forestry Authority with strong regulatory, surveillance and administrative controls. If need be, its surveillance and audit functions should be outsourced so that it operates at arm’s length from the industry.
A total change to the forestry department and the current regulatory and institutional will be required to do that, otherwise the political economy of the forestry industry and its current regulatory arrangements are so weak. Its corrosive influence and shady dealings has permeated the highest echelons of government and the hidden corners of the communities that nothing than a whole scale change will be required.
Being smart about our development options: the upshot of my basic argument is that we have to be smart about our developments and the options that we choose and decisions that we make if we are going to be optimistic about the next 40 years. In this regard, we have to recognize that we cannot do it alone, and in this new era, our engagements should also be with high tech and multinational companies, with people who work at Silicon Valley.
They are the ones who are driving the changes around the world that it is almost inevitable and unavoidable that we have to work with them; invite them to help us find solutions to our development challenges. We have to be smart about the way we develop our villages, by integrating local level planning; and also, be smart about the way we develop our towns. As part of this strategy, we should be promoting the greening of our towns and villages.
Smart living should also entail healthy living and with the hosting of the 2023 Pacific Games, we should actually use that as a basis for a new social engineering programme by investing in sporting facilities throughout the country to give effect to our desire to promote smart and healthy living.
It has not been possible in an article where you are limited by space to articulate the possibilities. As I alluded to above, we are only limited by our imagination as to what we can do to help ourselves. Our immediate opportunities stand at the cross roads with the potential loss of trade benefits that flow from our economic status at the United Nations. It is my fervent and sincere hope that the Prime Minister will personally intervene at the meeting of the UN Economic and Social Commission meeting later his month so that we are given some breathing space to explore alternative arrangements on current terms.
We are faced with many challenges and difficulties. We have no excuse not to address those that are within our power to manage. The allocation of financial resources to support our youths, prop up our health system, our educational institutions and to provide the underpinning administrative and institutional supporting mechanisms to improve the economic and social well-being of our peoples are all within our reach and possibly means.
These are challenges that we can address by being smart abut the way we allocate our limited resources. There are challenges over which we have no control, and that these result from being environmentally vulnerable. We are experiencing the impacts of climate change and global warming which is exacerbating the already harsh and humid conditions under which we have to work especially outside in the gardens. In this respect, we cannot avoid our international engagement so that we all find ways in which we mitigate the effects of these challenges.
We have plenty to lament about the past 40 years and the missed opportunities, but we cannot turn back the clock of time, and it behoves us on this occasion to celebrate who and what we still are; a happy and hard-working people. With my best wishes and hopes for the next 40 years.
Dr. Transform Aqorau
McCully Highway, Munda