SOLOMON ISLANDS: Building a country from scratch
Thomas Cromwell

With a population just shy of 600,000 living on a group of mountainous islands that stretch 1120 miles from east of Papua Guinea, and incorporate a land area the size of Maryland, the Solomon Islands boasts an impressive name but is largely undeveloped and in recent years has been troubled by ethnic rivalries and related violence.

The Solomon Islands’ ambassador to Washington and the United Nations, Colin Beck, recently sat down with to explain some of the issues facing his homeland, and plans afoot to improve conditions for residents there.

He noted that although the capital, Honiara, has diplomatic relations with the United States, it manages its relations with Washington from its UN embassy in New York. And Washington covers diplomatic relations with Honiara from its embassy in Papua New Guinea. All of which reflects the fact that Solomon Islands issues are not exactly the most prominent on the minds of US decision-makers.

Although the island nation has a GDP per capita of $1900, above that of the poorest countries, its infrastructure is not well developed and the government’s agenda features expanding basic necessities of the modern world, including roads, ports, airports, electricity, Internet access and promotion of the country’s tourism and business sectors. You will be hard pressed to find any sort of website for the country or its tourism.

This is a shame. As the ambassador told us, the country includes “six volcanic islands and some of the world’s largest lagoons.” In 1998, UNCESCO designated East Rendell, the southern third of the southernmost island as a World Heritage Site. East Rendell is the largest raised coral atoll in the world. 

All has not been peaceful in paradise. Solomon Islanders speak 80 different languages and are not yet fully in agreement on national policies and the distribution of government resources. Indeed, it is conflicts over the allocation of limited resources to critical infrastructure projects that sparked riots in the recent past. In 2003 Australia was asked to send peacekeepers to help restore order. It led a force of 2000 troops from the Pacific region. Fortunately, they established order without firing a shot.

Honiara sits on Guadalcanal, an island made known to Americans through the heavy fighting against the Japanese there in World War II. But the largest population is on Malaita, and it is this ethnic group primarily that has resented greater government expenditures on Guadalcanal.

Almost 95 percent of Solomon Islanders are Melanesian, and three percent are Polynesian, with the rest belonging to smaller ethnic groups.

This year Solomon Islands celebrates 30 years of independence from Britain. Ambassador Beck said the government continues to focus on two priorities: creating a common national identity, and providing a better quality of life for residents.

The ambassador noted that, “We have one of the most democratic systems,” and there have been eight prime ministers in the 30 years since independence. Of these, only one served a full four-year term. Following Britain’s parliamentary system means that a premier can be removed through a vote of no-confidence.

The population is very young, with a median age of 19.4 years. With high unemployment, the major challenge is to encourage investment, economic development and job creation. Hence the need for a modern infrastructure.

Ambassador Beck noted that Washington tended to “defer to Australia” in its policies regarding the Solomon Islands. But, he said, “It is difficult to do anything without the Americans.” He added that it is important to have Washington “engaged, to keep the relationship warm.”

One of the first things Honiara wants is the establishment of a consulate, if not an embassy, on Solomon Islands territory. This will help boost bilateral programs, including USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the HIV/AIDS programs. But it will also facilitate travel and encourage the Islanders to see the United States as an engaged friend.

There are other considerations. In the post-9/11 world, Solomon Islands wants to be part of America’s global security framework, including a piece of the $10 billion being spent on the relocation from Japan to Guam.

Then, too, trade with the United States is currently minimal. And American companies could help with basic infrastructure, including power generation. Currently the country spends one third of its budget on importing fossil fuels. There is potential for hydro generation projects and other alternatives, all of which would require imported technology and financial assistance.

Mining is a major potential, and already a major hard currency earner. Gold mining has been restarted, and a tender has been put out to bid for Nickel mining. Fishing and agriculture are traditional industries.

Some of the European countries, including Italy and Austria, are offering moderate sums for development projects. India and China are also offering limited assistance.

“We try to engage with everyone who has something to offer,” the ambassador said.

The efforts seem to be bearing fruit. In 2007 the country achieved a GDP growth rate of 9 percent.

However, the real economic development will take place when Solomon Islands develops its trade, investment and tourism, rather than winning aid, something the present government is aware of and focused on.