USAID’s recent announcement of the USD25 million SCALE Program focusing on Malaita has ignited commentary throughout the Solomons and the region, along with inevitable speculation about the timing of such a dramatic increase during a time of geopolitical contest.
But here in Malaita’s capital Auki, in what should be epicentre of all this excitement, the mood is settled, buoyant and hopeful. Far from the equivocation that is being reported out of central government Honiara, and the ambivalence from Canberra the mood in Malaita is of gratitude and positivity.
Why the difference? The answer lies in how the new focus on Malaita upsets a cozy order that has played out for decades in Solomon Islands in two important ways.
Firstly it disrupts an aid delivery mechanism that privileges the Honiara central elite, whereby the capital Honiara, its bureaucrats and foreign consultants gatekeep incoming flows and capture much of the benefit. The result has been near-stagnancy in development in the provinces throughout Solomon Islands despite world leading levels of foreign aid for much of the past 20 years.
Secondly, the new USAID support changes things by focusing for the first time ever, on Malaita, which is the most populous province of the Solomons. Malaita has been an island that has been maligned by the popular press for almost a century. Jack London used it as the setting of savagery in his book “Jerry of the Islands” more than a century ago, and this undeserved reputation seems to have dogged it ever since.
More recently, following the Solomon Islands conflict or “tensions”, Malaita was essentially ignored by the multibillion dollar RAMSI intervention led by Australia. While comprehensive economic infrastructure was pursued in the other large provinces of Solomon Islands during the period of RAMSI presence (2003-2017), there was no such attention paid to Malaita.
For instance, Australia has continued to back the USD250 million Tina Hydro project on Guadalcanal from 2011 onwards, while New Zealand bankrolled the USD30 million plus Munda International airport in Western Province from 2012 onwards. During the same 14 year period under RAMSI, traditional donors invested in a new courthouse and prison on Malaita.
The signals to the Malaitan population have not been lost. A cousin discussing at my house last week put it well: “We are so happy that Malaita has finally had some chance. We have 25% of the population of the country but we have no big projects for employment. West is lucky with Noro and KFPL and Eagon, and Guadalcanal has GPPOL and Tina Hydro but Malaita has no big employers.”
This lack of employment opportunity has driven long term outmigration from Malaita and this large diaspora in a culturally diverse country was one contributing factor to the devastating Solomon Islands “tensions” in the late 1990s.
The USAID initiative wraps up changes in both of these directions: a directed support to provinces instead of a continued emphasis on the central government, and a focus on Malaita Province versus continuation of relegating it to the “too hard basket”. For too long, donor attention thinking about Malaita has been dominated by what some academics called “the Malaitan problem”, a very unfortunate (and telling) choice of words.
Avoidance of aid commitment to Malaita has often been blamed on supposedly intractable land problems, but this problem is common throughout Solomon Islands, not just Malaita. And this is certainly not a reason to avoid the Province for decades. The proof that land issues can be overcome have been the successive years of steady progress on the Bina Harbour Tuna Project.
Assumptions about the possible geopolitical motives risk overshadowing the very real need of Malaita, and the very real imbalance that it has suffered from for a long time.
The provincial government of Premier Suidani has attracted global headlines for its strong stance on China, but this emphasis overshadows the fact that his government has been a shining example of effective and popular “government for the people”.
The Suidani government has cracked down on illegal logging which is devastating governance and environment across the whole country. Just last week it cleared millions of dollars in outstanding debt owing from the previous administration.
The mood of optimism here in Auki has nothing to do with geopolitics, but everything to do with the rise of good governance in the Province and the feeling that someone, somewhere, has finally taken notice of our plight.
Therefore, the question that should be asked by aid experts and donor agencies is not “Why Malaita?”, but rather “Why not Malaita?”.
And traditional donors who have ignored Malaita for years need to ask themselves that question first, instead of questioning USAID for its welcome entry to our country and province.
By Augustine Meti, Auki
Augustine Meti is a retired educationist and development practitioner. He has postgraduate qualifications in education from USP and has worked as an administrator in senior secondary schools throughout Solomon Islands. Over the last 20 years, he has been involved in donor programme management for EU, World Bank and Commonwealth funded initiatives, as well as being country coordinator in Solomon Islands for CUSO. He is currently retired in Auki, the capital of Malaita Province.