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Dirty field notes: what I learned about peace, war, and development in the Solomon Island.

Earlier this year, I embarked on a three-week mission to Solomon Islands. Officially, this was an "initiative to better understand the patterns of violent conflict and to prevent a return to the violence of the recent past." What it became, however, was a journey into the international peacebuilding industry in a hidden part of the world.

To be clear here: Solomon Islands was not on my map, mentally, professionally, or geographically. Depending on the context, the label that most accurately described me was "recovering academic" (earl), into a 12-step programme), or "gonzo academic," (working to bridge the space between ideas and action--whether "action" is framed as policy, development practice, or advocacy). I had already turned down an invitation to lead a team to Solomon Islands, based largely on "ick factor" generated by seeing the legions of so-called professional consultants flying blind from one war zone to another dispensing truths gleaned from business class at 10,000 meters.

In the end, mea culpa, I agreed that the work I had initiated on Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment might prove interesting--if not "useful"--in a Solomon Islands context. I was curious to see how the unique experiences of Solomon Islands might help me, and Solomon Islanders, better understand the uses and limitations of these tools and processes to assess how development interventions can affect the dynamics of peace or conflict in conflict-prone areas.

One of the conditions I put on my participation on a "team" was that the division of labour would be one where I contributed to the development and application of an appropriate methodology (drawing on 24 years of work with colleagues in Sri Lanka and the Philippines), while the rest of the team of Solomon Islanders would provide the substantive "stuff". In the end, the "team'" consisted of two Australians, one Brit, an American, one Solomon Islander intern and me, a Canadian--certainly not the local team that I had argued was needed for the exercise. Our weeks together took us in and around Honiara, as well as to Malaita, Rural Guadalcanal and Western Province, where we met with the widest range of actors including UN agencies, Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands, international development agencies, government officials, NGOs, churches, chiefs, youth, and others. Specifically, we were there to determine whether the interventions of the international community were contributing to peacebuilding.

Simple Questions, Hard Answers

By the end of the mission, we had held intensive conversations with more than 300 people. The assessment of whether or not international intervention is contributing to peacebuilding boils down to two pretty straight-forward questions: Is the initiative in question increasing the capacity of Solomon Islanders to identity problems, and to formulate and implement their own solutions non-violently and effectively? And, is the initiative in question built on a partnership that leads towards genuine ownership by Solomon Islanders?

In the less-than-diplomatic language of a gonzo academic, the response to both of these questions is short and blunt: No.

My first exposure to the active undermining of local capacities to build peace was "'Expat Wantokism." Those familiar with Solomon Islands will know that "Wantok" (derived from "One Talk") refers to the basic way in which Melanesians organize themselves whereby social, political, and economic interactions are determined by one's membership in a particular subgroup ("Wantok").

This system tends to determine the economic, social, and political opportunities available to individuals. Outsiders often see this as a form of structured favouritism that permeates Solomon Islands.

However, when the gaze is reversed, one comes nose-to-nose with the same phenomenon within the development industry. Over the course of the mission, this was illustrated in: the practice of hiring expats living in the Solomon Islands--mostly Australians--to fill "local hire positions"; the expat composition of monitoring or assessment missions to the country--my own included; expat salaries reported to exceed Aus $13,000 per month; and in the estimated 60-80 per cent of Australian donor assistance that finds its way back to Australia (a point boastfully and proudly extolled in the land of John Howard). The implications of this practice (aside from obvious accusations of hypocrisy) can be seen in the incapacitating impact it has on Solomon Islanders attempting to fashion home-grown responses to the most pressing challenges lacing their country.

Peacebuilding as Empire-Building

No one in Solomon islands would deny that the arrival of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands in July 2003--when close to 2,500 military and civilian police streamed off the ships and planes--quickly restored public order and security, in addition to stabilizing government finances in the wake of galloping lawlessness, personal insecurity, and violent conflict. Impacts of the intervention, which came at the invitation of the Solomons' government, have been tangible, measurable, and significant. The banks are now open, children attend school, and the small arms that had been circulating have been, for the most part, turned in.

But, more than a year later, RAMSI's military and non-military forces remain in place with personnel ensconced in virtually every strategic government ministry, shaping and determining for Solomon Islanders the course that its development journey will take in years to come. Indeed, while RAMSI has been successful in creating short-term stability, it is simultaneously undermining Solomon Islander capacities for longer-term peace. In short, the high foreign presence in Solomon islands might reasonably be framed as a form of occupation or a return to colonial rule. And this presence, in turn, threatens to backfire. As RAMSI continues to successfully arrest and prosecute the "big men" involved in criminal-political-militant activities, the risk will increase that the "bigger men" (who might feel that it is only a matter of time before they join their colleagues in Rove Prison) will actively mobilize dissent around this "foreign occupation" issue in an effort to revoke the invitation for RAMSI to be in the country.

At the moment, this would likely be a hugely unpopular move throughout the country, as the tangible benefits of the law and order delivered by RAMSI are acutely appreciated, not least because of the rawness of the memories of violence during the tensions. However, it would take only a little time, and a few unsavoury nightclub incidents (or worse), to create the space for those same "conflict entrepreneurs" of 1998-2003 to begin actively stoking an anti-foreigner sentiment under the banner "Solomon Islands for the Solomon Islanders."

If the international community is not contributing to peacebuilding in Solomon Islands, then the challenge is this: what needs to be done to reverse this situation? The following steps may be useful--at least in clarifying the challenges ahead:

Step One: recognize that many current international initiatives effectively incapacitate Solomon Islanders.

Step Two: recognize that the current semi-colonial structures are not conducive to Solomon ownership.

Step Three: recognize that Solomon Islands is blessed with individuals and groups (both local and expat) with firm and proven commitment to constructive social change.

Step Four: recognize that these individuals and groups are the resources/networks/allies to be supported strategically.

Step Five: recognize that development is unavoidably destabilizing because it undermines existing political, economic and social structures. The greatest challenge, therefore, is to manage a process of destabilizing change in a conflict-prone area in a way that does not re-ignite into earlier forms of violence that served the interests of some elites at the expense of the rest of the country.

Clearly, there is a considerable jump between Step Four and Step Five. But let's be clear about the nature of the challenge in front of us.

In some interesting ways, Solomon Islands appears to be in a much better position than most other countries that have walked through the fire of militarized inter-group violence. The vast majority of weapons (stolen from government armouries) that terrorized and traumatized communities during the tensions have been returned. Consequently, SI appears to have avoided the development of cultures of violence that usually develop in cases of more protracted conflicts. However, the political corruption and economic self-interest that characterized and motivated most leaders during the Tensions remain on the Solomon political landscape. And therein lies the fundamental challenge: the transformation of the structures of governance that are still inhabited by individuals with vested interests in thwarting such challenge.
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Publication:Tok Blong Pacifik
Geographic Code:8SOLO
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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