The young woman, blonde ponytail spilling from under her floppy hat, rifle slung loosely across her back as she shopped for carvings among the traders at Henderson Field, seemed an appropriate symbol of Australia's new found interest in its Pacific neighbours.
She and the rest of the Australians camped in the olive green tents and tending the Iriquois helicopters and Caribou transports on the margin of the airfield were part of the Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The police and military force is made up of personnel from Australia, New Zealand, PNG, Tonga, Fiji and other Pacific island states and had been deployed some months earlier to enforce the peace in the Solomons.
When RAMSI landed it acted quickly to deprive the ethnic militias - the Isatambu Freedom Movement and the Malaita Eagle Force - of support. RAMSI created a forceful presence in the capital, Honiara, and forces were deployed to regional centres and into the heartlands of militia activity on Guadalcanal and Malaita. Militia leaders were arrested and weapons surrendered. This gave the impression that decisive action was being taken as gave hope that the reign of the armed gangs was over. The intervention forces are still viewed with goodwill and Solomon Islanders welcome the return to law and order.
What some are now asking, however, is whether the sense of optimism that followed the intervention can be maintained, especially after the military, and, later, the police, are withdrawn. According to expatriates and local people, that will depend on whether the benefits of the peace can be extended to communities in the provinces. And that, they say, will depend on the governments of the Solomon Islands and Australia and on the non-government organisations (NGOs) that deliver much of the aid.
Youth Bulge characterises instability
Like other countries that have experienced political instability and declining internal security, the Solomon Islands exhibits a demographic 'youth bulge', a disproportionate number of people in the 15 to 30 year age group. It was this group that made up the core of the contending militias which after 1999 brought conflict and insolvency to the country.
Only a little time need be spent in the provinces, or in Honiara, for the preponderance of this youth demographic to become evident. Groups of young people are seen sitting around, sometimes playing soccer or basketball, but without employment or any income-earning enterprise or constructive role of their own. As some working in the aid sector say, this is this demographic whose aspirations must be addressed if the islands are to enjoy a lasting peace and if a modest level of prosperity is to be gained.
The future of peace
Perceptions of the RAMSI intervention remain positive and the Australian government has hailed the success of the intervention, however some locals say that declarations of success are too early. Why, asked one expatriate, did Australia not intervene when the Solomons government asked them to, as the crisis was worsening? That was before the militias displaced the government as the force in the country. He asked whether domestic political grandstanding played as equal a role in the intervention as concern for the people of the Solomon Islands.
RAMSI's success in disarming the militias and restoring peace has been largely without ructions within its multinational ranks. There was one reported incident, knowledge of which spread quickly, concerning the early return home of a number of Fijian police because of alleged misconduct involving women. Other police have complained that their six month tour of duty is too long, that three months would have been about right, however whether this complaint is widespread remains unknown.
There was also a seeming reluctance to clamp down on illegal trading in alcohol, noisy and violent behaviour at a weekend 'disco' that operated at Whites River on the edge of Honiara. Despite complaints about the noise and violence associated with the open-air premises, which is also home to a community that includes children, RAMSI police said they were too "under-resourced" to intervene. This is nonsense, given that RAMSI must be the best-resourced operation of its type in the South Pacific. The excuse led one local to suggest that most of the RAMSI force might be found in the bar of the Yacht Club or the Mendana Hotel rather than being posted on duty on the nights when trouble was most likely. The situation, however, was quickly resolved. After a few weeks the police started turning up to close the disco a little after midnight, but on their last visit their vehicles were stoned. They called in the army and the disco was finally - and locals hope permanently - shut down.
A positive role model
Australia's boosted aid programme to the Solomons will be important to the island state's future and, hopefully, the Australian bureaucrats placed within key ministries will succeed in preventing or at least in reducing the siphoning off of badly-need aid and development funds.
But the ability of government to deliver the benefits of aid and development to rural villages, of which something like 85 per cent have a semi-subsistence economy, is doubtful, going by their record to date. Away from the towns, the influence of government is almost negligible.
Rural villages are the territory of the aid NGOs, indigenous agencies like the Solomon Islands Development Trust and the Australian and other foreign agencies that operate in the country. It is they that have the contacts, the skills and the people with motivation and insight into the daily life of isolated communities. What is needed is improved cooperation with AusAID to make the agencies more effective, to improve their organisational abilities, and for AusAID to pay attention to what they say instead of sending more expensive fact-finding delegations of consultants and staff into the country.
As well as ongoing issues like food security and community health, the critical role for NGOs lies in addressing livelihoods for the youth making up the demographic bulge. Projects like the AusAID-funded Sustainable Youth Livelihood Project, implemented by the Kastom Gaden Association, show modest signs of success that might be expanded were the project to be scaled-up. Unfortunately, there is doubt that AusAID will continue to support the project.
As an Australian expatriate said, Australia's renewed interest in the region, especially in the Solomons and PNG, appears to be motivated mainly by security concerns and to be run by the various think tanks such as the Australian Security Policy Institute. But this is limited. Why not, he asks, turn the new policy of intervention into a real partnership for development that is more than security-driven, more than motivated by domestic politics and that could secure a firm footing in development for the country's Pacific neighbours?