7 July 2019
Considering the best means of developing the Solomon Islands
In May this year I wrote an article for the two main newspapers in the Solomon Islands which I titled ‘One who chases two rabbits ends us catching neither,’ a play on a famous Chinese proverb.
In that article I said:
“In a rare and perhaps unprecedented statement claimed to have been made by an unidentified spokesperson for the Republic of Chinese Embassy in Honiara, the Solomon Star today released details of the statement.”
Here are some extracts:
“The Republic of China (Taiwan) Embassy Office in Honiara has described the way some Members of Parliament (MP) are blaming Taiwan for failing to build infrastructure and create job opportunities at their constituencies as ridiculous.
“Speaking to this paper in an exclusive interview, a spokesperson for the Embassy said according to Taiwan foreign policy, Taiwan cannot directly involve in developing the constituencies.
“Taiwan only release its Constituency Development Funds (CDF) contribution worth $1.4 million every to each constituency every year and it’s the 50 MPs with its constituents will decide how to use their CDF, the top official explained.
“The embassy spokesman said Taiwan CDF contribution plus SIG contribution - $5.5 million is sufficient for 50 constituencies to build infrastructure and social developments to boost economic activities and employment at various constituencies.
“This huge sum of money would transform Solomon Islands if it is properly managed to develop constituencies, the official said.
“The embassy is urging Members of Parliament to learn from Taiwan’s wealth of experience on how they utilized aid money to develop.
Perhaps the statement from the ROC Embassy was prompted by recent press reports citing the Solomon Islands government was considering its future relationships with Taiwan, albeit, as I understand the situation, nothing has yet changed with the diplomatic ties.
One might do well in thinking about one of the best of Chinese proverbs which says:
“One who chases two rabbits ends up with catching neither.”
Some three years earlier, the Hon Rick Hou, then Solomon Islands Prime Minister visited the Australian National University (ANU) where he delivered a Discussion Paper, titled ‘A Day in the Life of a Member of Parliament in Solomon Islands.
That paper, according to James Batley (former Australian High Commissioner to the Solomon Island in my time in office) said”
“The Discussion Paper provides a fascinating — and quite possibly unique — first-hand insight into the many demands and pressures which MPs face on a day-to-day basis in Solomon Islands, and how these can be managed. Hou also addresses the contested issue of constituency development funds — budgeted funds that are under the control of, and spent at the discretion of, Members of Parliament. Allocations for such funds have grown steeply in recent years in Solomon Islands (and in neighbouring Papua New Guinea). Hou argues that, provided suitable governance arrangements are put in place, the constituency can serve as an important vehicle in the delivery of government services (and overseas aid) to Solomon Islands’ dispersed and largely rural population.”
“Rick Hou served as Governor of the Central Bank of Solomon Islands for over 15 years during the 1990s and the first half of last decade. He was elected to Parliament in 2010 to represent the constituency of Small Malaita and was re-elected in 2014.”
I was keen to read what Mr. Hou had said about the CDF myself and I will quote extracts what I saw he had to say in his paper. I mention extracts because Mr. Hour’s paper is indeed enlightening but too lengthy to reproduce here, but very worthwhile downloading and studying.
“The Case for the Constituency as the Delivery Vehicle In the final section of this paper, I will be arguing the case for the constituency office to be recognised as the new channel for development assistance in Solomon Islands. I will contend that not only should it be recognised as such — rather the constituency office should be used more for service delivery in Solomon Islands.”
“Solomon Islands is still going through a period of finding a way of ensuring the best and most effective means of delivering services to our people. This is the same process that has taken many (now) developed countries hundreds of years and, in a few cases, maybe thousands of years. As in those countries, during the course of this process we are experiencing inequality of services and wastage of resources. Undoubtedly, it is a period when the system itself is seen as corrupt, and we see many examples of unintended outcomes. This is what we have been going through for the past 38 years of our existence as a nation. It seems to me that as a consequence of this imperfect process we have not seen any new development projects in the 25 years prior to 2010.”
“In my constituency (Small Malaita) we have an airport, one wharf, one area health centre and one senior secondary school: all of these were constructed before independence. And while the provincial government was provided funding for their upkeep, all of these important facilities were left to decay over the period before 2010. At the same time, we have seen development projects going up closer to Auki, the Malaita provincial capital, and in the northern part of the province. The southern region has been totally left out. Obviously, the system has continued to benefit those regions that were already ahead in their stage of development. This is a common story across the country. Many regions of our country feel left out. Many parts of the country feel as if the government is too far away from them, and that government services will never reach them. This is one of the reasons for the current push towards a federal system of government.”
“The search for an effective and better delivery mechanism for development assistance is therefore a legitimate one and has been underway for a long time. Some people believe that a federal system would address this more effectively than our present system. In the meantime, though, the constituency office has quickly gained momentum as a favoured channel for project delivery. The simple explanation for this is that MPs have a very direct interest in it. This mechanism ensures that the distribution of financial resources is shared equally among the 50 constituencies. The resources are applied in line with the respective constituency plans which are managed by their own staff. To that end — depending on the plans — the majority of rural dwellers in many constituencies now see some development taking place in their local area compared to some years ago.”
“The funding and resources I used on projects came from the same source — the Solomon Islands Government. It is clear that those infrastructure facilities had been left unattended for years because the provincial government did not bother about them. More seriously, though, the central government does not trust provincial governments to implement any project funding because of the poor track record they have established in the past 30 years or so.
“The practice of giving ‘handouts’ is still widespread and so ingrained that it is still the main drive at election time. as donations and as gifts upon request. This is partly explained by reference to the traditional Melanesian ‘big man’ mentality. More commonly, however, the MP simply feels compelled to ‘be everything to everybody’ out of fear of what might happen at the next election.”
“Whether motivated by political expedience or by a genuine urge to deliver tangible services to the populace, the 50 MPs are not in a hurry to remove constituency funds from the constituency. If anything, the indications are very clear — this will continue and resources may continue to increase. That being the case, the most logical thing to do is to strengthen the rules and regulations that will enhance the effective and efficient use of those funds, and ensure that the intended beneficiaries do receive these services. Instead of opposing it and playing the ‘blame game’ on MPs, a better approach would be to work with government to strengthen the policy framework and operational procedures. If the constituency has shown it can deliver quickly and directly to rural communities, this is an opportunity to make sure that happens cost-effectively. We should work on ways to enhance the sustainability of this model over the long run. After all, we should all be working towards serving the same beneficiaries — the people of Solomon Islands. “
“The previous NCRA (National Coalition for Reform and Advancement) government (2010–14) took some important policy actions to address concerns about the efficient use ofconstituency funds. One step was passage of the Constituency Development Funds Act 2013 (although this legislation has never really been implemented). The NCRA government also sought to establish supporting regulations to the Act (which have suffered a similar fate as the legislation). Subsequently, as noted above, administrative measures were introduced to standardise the rules and regulations governing constituency funds, to strengthen reporting requirements, and to ensure timely and comprehensive acquittal reporting. And it is clear (see above) that under the current government these administrative measures continue to be strengthened. These measures are being introduced to ensure improved compliance with the Public Finance Management Act 2013, but also to ensure that funds are spent as intended. The opportunity should be seized by all stakeholders to supportthe government to strengthen the constituency office as an important vehicle for service delivery and of development assistance so that it can do its work more effectively and efficiently.”
“Since my election to parliament in 2010, I have had to learn to deal with a variety of challenges, while trying to perform whatI believe is the proper role of an MP. In this job it is not easy to separate public life from private life. It is not easy to separate family from constituents. The constituency office and the MP are not easily separable. The demands and expectations on the MP vary enormously and are huge.”
“Everybody believes they are entitled to your time and to everything you own.”
“Early in my first term, I went about a rigorous awareness campaign on issues of interest to my constituents, in particular the work of the constituency and my role as MP. I learned that public awareness and keeping everybody informed about the constituency office operations is the most effective way to deal with these varying demands on the MP. But I found it is important to establish the constituency officewith adequate staffing to manage the affairs of the constituency on a foundation of clear guidelines and instructions. “
“The Constituency Development Officer (CDO), the Constituency Project Officer (CPO) as an accountant. This has significantly improved our ability to put the management of constituency funds, and the general administration and operations of the office, at arm’s length from the MP himself.”
Writing in August last year, Terence Wood penned and article which he titled ‘How politics keeps Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea poor and poorly governed.’
Mr. Wood had some interesting comments to make about voting in the Solomon Islands and how “governance woes contribute to the countries’ poverty.
In respect of both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, he said, “Their governments neglect essential infrastructure. Dysfunctional bureaucracies impede legitimate businesses and let other businesses get away with causing harm. Health and education systems are poorly run.”
In respect of voting practices, perhaps lending weight to views of Mr. Hou, Mr. Wood said:
“In elections voters don’t vote in search of better public policy, or on the basis of how well the country is being governed. Rather, they vote for candidates they think will help them directly if they win. This has the effect of selecting and incentivising members of parliament (MPs) to focus on delivering direct benefits to their supporters back in their electorates rather than running the national government well.”
“The effects of this are obvious. In both countries, funds that MPs can spend at their discretion within their electorates have grown at the same time as government departments have been underfunded. In both countries, ministers often pay little attention to the government departments they are supposed to be running. Ministers are rarely punished for poor performance. Bureaucracies are not subject to political pressure to improve; they are neglected and demoralised.”
“It may sound like I am blaming voters in Solomon Islands and PNG for their countries’ governance woes. I’m not. I think voters who vote in search of personal or localised benefits in the two countries are voting perfectly reasonably. Voters’ decisions are reasonable because the states they live in are weak, while at the same time voters’ needs are acute. Voters need something from elections, and when the government can’t deliver it through better policy and better services, all they can hope for is direct assistance from MPs.”
Taking into consideration all the aforementioned comments and opinions what conclusions do we see as having emerged that would best benefit the Solomon Islands and its development needs from hereon?
Is Mr. Hou right in believing that CDF is the answer with all the regulatory, audit and safeguarding practices in place to ensure effective development, or even with the safeguards would CDF money still go to meeting constituents needs and not see wholesale development?
Is more and better targeted direct aid the answer, to be provided by donor partners such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan?
If neither CDF money nor more direct aid from existing donor partners isn’t the answer, is there any other option that would be wholly, economically and politically beneficial to the Solomon Islands?