Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Pacific: not waving, drowning? 

There's a kind of sad irony that today Australia has suffered its first casualty in Solomon Islands, when a 26-year policeman Adam Dunning, was shot and killed while patrolling the streets of the capital Honiara, while no Australian has been killed yet in the far more controversial and dangerous Iraqi deployment.

Solomon Islands, which last year descended into anarchy and virtual civil war, were pulled away from the brink of a total state collapse by the Australian-led
Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The relative peace has now been restored and this small Pacific state is currently in receipt of considerable Australian assistance. It's not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but mainly throughout its own region that Australia is trying to spread peace, security, democracy and development, from East Timor and Papua New Guinea to Bouganville and Solomon Islands.

Pacific evokes perfect touristy images of white beaches and swaying palms, reefs and atolls, and blue ocean teeming with underwater life. However, there's a lot more to the region than its exotic qualities. Pacific island states remain largely off the Western media's radar, and not surprisingly so, having to compete for news space with the politics of the developed world and continuing troubles in many hot spots around the globe. But Pacific is a region beset by many problems, political and economic. Writes
Helen Hughes of Australia's right-wing think tank Centre for Independent Studies:
"Per capita income has grown at less than 1% a year in the Pacific during the past 30 years. In some islands it has declined. Population has grown at more than 3% a year. The discrepancy between population and income growth lies at the core of the Pacific's problems...

"Since 1970 the Pacific has received US$50 billion - A$100 billion (in 1998 dollars) - in aid. Australia has been the largest donor. But because aid flows are not earned income, they create economic 'rents' that distort economies. Aid flows are fungible. They can be spent on projects and programmes of the recipient's choosing - on consumption rather than investment. Because they bias an economy against the private sector, they undercut employment and growth and lead to corruption. Super-profits from rich mineral deposits similarly create economic rents that also have negative economic effects, leading to public waste."
Elsewhere, three weeks ago, Hughes wrote that
"All is quiet in the Pacific. The past year has seen no coups or new insurrections... But for the 30th successive year, there has been no growth. With aid running at more than $1.5 billion a year to soften the effects of stagnation, Pacific governments continue to opt for inaction.

"Stagnation, poverty and descent into crime and conflict are not inevitable but the result of Pacific governments' policy choices and the implicit support of aid for those choices. The Pacific is rich in resources, has a benign climate and is near the fastest growing markets in the world... Pacific islands could be viable at high standards of living within a generation if they adopted policies that match their endowments."
The problems of Pacific nations are not likely to ever attract a lot of attention; the states in questions are miniscule, populations small, and the region far away from where the international action usually is. Still, the challenges are real enough, and solutions will have to be found if the Pacific paradise is not to become a permanent hell for its people.

Update: On Solomon Islands, you can read this excellent piece by Tom Dusevic in "Time" magazine:
"The chinese covet Nike's Swoosh. America loves the iPod. Australians are hooked on a TV show called Idol. And Solomon Islanders have the cult of RAMSI. An intervention force may seem an unlikely thing to swoon over, but the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has pop-star appeal across the 992-island archipelago. The freshly minted brand has gained the status of savior and sorcerer with a long-suffering people, who utter the acronym in respectful whispers or with toothy smiles. From the streets of the ragtag capital, Honiara, to remote villages that the modern world has barely touched, a white stranger is instinctively welcomed as a friend rather than a carpetbagger because of ramsi's good works. High on a ridge above Honiara, at a memorial for Allied troops who died fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Guadalcanal six decades ago, Reuben Buarobo, 25, feels he is at last setting sail on his future: 'As long as RAMSI is here things will change,' says the unemployed Malaita islander. 'There will eventually be stable government and everything will be O.K'."
Yes, it's not just Iraq.


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