It is not hard to imagine these Pacific islands as they were in the 1500s when a Spanish explorer came, found gold, and gave the Solomon Islands their name. The islands are still dotted with homes made from wood and sago palm and some 80 per cent of the population still have a subsistence lifestyle through farming, fishing, or hunting and gathering. Ownership of land and property is still spread out over family and kin networks, rather than being kept by individuals. This is what remains of the ‘old’ Solomon Islands where life is ruled by kastom – commonly accepted behaviour rooted in tradition.
But visitors who arrive in the capital city of Honiara, get one of the many taxis beating out reggaeton and weave their way through the car and footpath traffic, will see the ‘new’ Solomon Islands in full force. In Honiara are mingled many different Melanesian tribes from the islands, Polynesians and Micronesians wearing lavalavas (sarongs), as well as wakus (Chinese entrepreneurs) going about their business. Kastom here is more about the strength of local cultural norms in the face of foreign influences; life is more about the balance between where you are from and where you want to go.
Economic development and aid have been restarted following a period of violent conflict between people from the islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal (where Honiara is situated) in 2003. The economy grew by almost five per cent in the first year of peace and, to the surprise of many a Western economist, studies found this growth was entirely due to industrious small-scale fishers, farmers and other family-run businesses.
The arrival of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands has had many unintended effects. This began as a peacekeeping force initiated by the Pacific Islands Forum and morphed over time into an Australian-dominated law, justice and statebuilding ‘intervention’ that has now lasted over five years and looks set to continue for another five. Among the byproducts are a rapid growth in housing in Honiara, which has in general favoured those city dwellers with already established assets and businesses, while the poor have been pushed further away from the city centre. Despite this marginalization, malnutrition and extreme poverty are very rare thanks to the wantok system of strong social obligations to care for the extended family. Ironically, this safety net is also a key obstacle to better distribution of wealth via government, as politicians tend to channel privileges and assets to their wantoks.
As islanders look towards the imminent next election in 2010, it is with a general sense that something has to change. A law granting special payments to spouses of Members of Parliament (MPs) caused widespread public outrage and a public service strike, prompted by the sense that political élites were taking the country for a ride to the detriment of the average citizen.
This dissatisfaction is nothing new – the Solomon Islands Development Trust has consistently rated government capacity to provide basic services as unsatisfactory over the past two decades. The absence of armed conflict has revitalized local campaigns such as Transparency International and Winds of Change calling for greater accountability from politicians. In addition, women’s groups are pushing for change, the country having elected only one female MP in its 30 years of independence. Civil society is thriving, as church and sports groups in particular pool their energy and resources to promote education, women’s empowerment, and traditional dancing and art.
Notwithstanding the old jokes about ‘Solomon time’ (a long time to get something done) and ‘Solomon stori’ (a roundabout way of telling a tale), there is a lot happening as the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Solomon Islands meet and become the country’s future.