The Solomon Islands: Power, Politics and the Quest for Peace and Prosperity

October 9, 2023
Solomon Islands

As millions are being spent to spruce up Honiara ahead of the Pacific Games this November, many of its residents continue to live on the margins.

Photo: Supplied.

For the first time, this November, the Solomon Islands, a Pacific nation of 992 sparkling islands, is poised to host the Pacific Games, and the government is going all out to make it an outstanding event.

A glittering new state-of-the-art stadium and newly paved roads in the capital, Honiara, are waiting to welcome high-level guests and athletes from all over the region. But as millions are being spent to spruce up the city, many of its residents continue to live on the margins.

Take Titus Qwauna, for instance, who lives in the informal, bustling, and crowded settlement of Koa Hill, near a trash-strewn river smack in the middle of Honiara. He along with many others here struggle daily to protect their families and communities from multiple risks such as flash floods, hunger, and a lack of decent jobs and opportunities.

Qwauna is a member of the Bishop Patterson Koa Hill Youth Association, whose community cultivates bamboo and vetiver – a type of grass – along the Mataniko riverbanks and trains residents in waste management and recycling.  

If you talk to Titus, he will tell you that life here is a perennial battle against a range of elements. Periodic flooding now occurs with increased frequency and intensity and calls for the continuous rebuilding of community gardens, walkways, and ditches.

On another front, the lure of drugs and alcohol draws rowdy gangs of youth that gather nightly on the nearby shoreline, causing sleepless nights for residents of Koa Hill, and increasing tensions in the community.

He says social insecurity is now the norm across urban and peri-urban neighbourhoods. What becomes clear, as he speaks, is the need for more meaningful action and partnerships, as countries like the Solomon Islands contend with big powers that are pledging renewed interest in the Pacific.

This elevated geopolitical attention to the Pacific is an opportunity to foster a genuine collaboration that brings concrete benefits, and inclusive growth for communities like Koa Hill and its youth, instead of fearmongering, unnecessary competition among communities, and fragmentation of resources.

The Pacific Games will come and go, and when the show of athletic solidarity and prowess fades, the thorny issues will linger. Issues about peace and prosperity and how to foster sustainable development for all the islands’ inhabitants.

Much of the answer rests in self-reliance and the traditional heritage of the islanders themselves. The Solomoni people and in fact Pacific Islanders, especially in outer and isolated islands and atolls, are one of the most independent and self-sufficient people on the planet.

For centuries, they have lived off their oceans and lands, in harmony with nature, honing their traditional skills, while withstanding waves of historical events and geopolitics. Yet, no one nation can do it on their own.

This is where that geopolitical collaboration must kick in to channel the benefits of modern green technologies and digital skillsets, to Pacific Islanders.  There has never been a better time to forge bolder ambitions for inclusive prosperity, based on the vision and traditions of these island communities.

To do this, requires good governance, which means investing in local governing bodies, assemblies, and institutions that are accountable, while improving the delivery of essential services and creating even more opportunities for the people.  

The upcoming National Parliamentary and Local Assembly elections, being held for the first time, in 2024, will help bring in a more diverse range of local and national candidates who can amplify the voices and needs of their constituencies, in 50 electoral districts.

But lumping the needs of the greater Pacific into one monolithic region is not the answer and will lead to shallow outcomes and unsustainable results. The Solomon Islands itself is made up of 9 provinces, with unique traditions, community setups, and power-sharing structures. So, any intervention must be tailored to the unique attributes of each province.

Seventy-two percent of the Solomoni population reside in rural/peri-urban areas, and almost 70 percent of the population are aged 35 years and under, given that concentration, we need to prioritize the needs of these key constituencies.

Investing in young people can help foster a generation of entrepreneurs and future leaders and will minimize social tensions and political capture while building greater cohesion across the generations for the shared vision of a sustainable future.  

Soon the island’s population will exceed one million, making it one of the most populous island countries in the Pacific. What we do now – the government, big powers, and development organizations among others – will either empower a new generation of young people to stay home and be leaders and guardians of thriving vibrant communities, hemmed in by healthy reefs, and clear blue shorelines, or we will cause them to vote with their feet by moving out and trying their luck elsewhere.

So, it is vital to make the right choices today that will shape the Solomon Islands of tomorrow.

Ms. Kanni Wignaraja is UN Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.