It has cost more than $3 billion dollars, but has RAMSI achieved everything it set out to? And what happens once it’s gone? Daniel Evans takes a look at the legacy Australia leaves behind in Solomon Islands.
Today one of Australia’s most significant, and expensive, foreign policy forays in recent times will come to an end. Over the last 14 years more than $3 billion dollars will have been spent on a tiny regional neighbour. A country which most Australians would struggle to pinpoint on a map. And the results are mixed and the gains far from assured.
Solomon Islands found its way onto the Howard Government radar in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. As the self-appointed deputy sheriff in the Pacific it fell upon the Australian taxpayer to bail out a dysfunctional state that had been the subject of a five-year, low-level civil conflict.
Australian troops dramatically disembarked on the shores of Red Beach on the outskirts of sleepy Honiara in 2003, joining their police counterparts. This was the same site that around 60 years earlier had seen the landing of allied troops in what was to be a turning point of the Second World War.
The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, RAMSI, comprised personnel from 15 Pacific Island states. However, it was Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, who devised, led and funded it. That Australia had decided to so emphatically intervene in this small archipelago was perplexing, representing a significant shift in regional policy. Only six months earlier Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had scoffed at the idea, declaring that an intervention “would not work… foreigners do not have answers for the deep-seated problems afflicting Solomon Islands.”
Fears that the country had the potential to be a staging-post for international terrorism featured prominently in the public explanations for the policy U-turn, a prospect that most Solomon Islanders would find laughable. Posturing to our allies – and potential Asian rivals – undeniably played a role too.
The key RAMSI successes came quickly. The fighting stopped immediately, militants were arrested and high-powered firearms were taken off the streets. State agencies could reopen their doors and focus on the recovery ahead. For this, Solomon Islanders remain grateful. But following early gains, progress became more difficult, and even more expensive.
The messy, protracted and thankless task of statebuilding has proved to be just as challenging in Solomon Islands as it has in any other global hotspot. Efforts to prop up hollowed-out state institutions mainly through the placement of Australian public servants and consultants have had mixed results, often with little to show. Predictably, many of the visitors floundered, anticipating that Canberra fixes would neatly apply in their new environment. Their bulging, tax-free pay-packets did little to endear them to their Solomon Islander counterparts.
The lion’s share of Australian assistance has been to the Solomon Islands police. Having played a highly partisan role in the conflict, this has involved an almost complete rebuilding of the force. Undoubtedly a source of great exasperation to the Australian Federal Police who were tasked with assisting in this process, the local police remain the subject of universal derision, widely regarded as incompetent. A lack of progress in tackling pervasive government corruption is the main source of public irritation. However, even basic policing tasks remain a challenge. An inability, or unwillingness, to respond to routine requests for assistance from the public instils little confidence that they are up to tackling the big issues.
But institutional challenges aside, the truth remains just as Downer predicted – the central problems which the country faces are those which no form of external assistance could ever hope to address. And the stability RAMSI has brought about has, perversely, provided the perfect enabling environment for these problems to grow.
Politics in Solomon Islands is highly clientelist: relations of patronage dictate everything. Governing isn’t about the common good. Rather, citizens and politicians are trapped in an intractable co-dependent relationship. Voters show little interest in overarching national policies and goals and their elected representatives respond accordingly. The result is a highly-localised style of politics characterised by fragmentation, duplication and, above-all, poor decision-making. When combined with persistent corruption, impossible land disputes, uncontrolled urbanisation and unregulated natural resource development, the prospects for the future of the country are ominous.
While Australia’s excursion in Solomon Islands will finish today with RAMSI’s disbanding, the country will remain a major recipient of Australian aid. It currently ranks third behind Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
In an effort to shore up its legacy, over the last few months Australian officials have been talking up RAMSI’s success. But on the streets of Honiara the topic of discussion has been much more immediate. The issue of whether violent conflict will return to Solomon Islands following RAMSI’s withdrawal is hotly debated. That this question is still a topic of national conversation speaks volumes to the unresolved issues that RAMSI is leaving behind.
Whilst RAMSI has played an important stop-gap role, providing an environment for Solomon Islands to recover and develop, unfortunately for Australia, and the region, all the signs point to a country that hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunities offered.