The Regional Assistant Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), the multilateral intervention force, led by Australia, has been operating in the Solomon Islands for six years at a cost so far of about Aust$1 billion (for a population of 500,000 people).
When RAMSI first came to Solomon Islands in 2003, after the Townsville Peace Agreement, it was welcomed by almost all with open arms. It came at the invitation of the Governor General, Prime Minister and National Parliament at a time when the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal was still under the control of militants led by Harold Keke and when Malaita Eagle Force "special constables" were still stealing government money. The Royal Solomon Islands Police (RSIP) was only beginning to rebuild, much of the judiciary system had collapsed and the prisons run down and insecure.
RAMSI had (and has) three arms: (1) the military (soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji) to deal with areas of civil disorder requiring armed intervention (the RSIP had been disarmed because of their role in the 2000 coup), especially the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal; (2) the police (led by the Australian Federal Police but including police from most of the South Pacific Commonwealth countries); and (3) the civilian (mostly Australian and New Zealand as civil servants from other Pacific countries lost their seniority at home if they resigned to join RAMSI) in the areas of finance, prison services, the judiciary and elections.
As RAMSI was initially an emergency intervention, these areas were determined to be the priority areas of work. Other areas, such as medical care, education and infrastructure development, were left to bilateral and multilateral aid programmes such as AusAID, the European Union, the Asia Development Bank, etc. All the RAMSI programs were (and are) under the RAMSI Special Coordinator, a civilian diplomat who also liaises with the various heads of missions of countries included in RAMSI. The RAMSI Special Coordinator has always been an Australian (the first Special Coordinator, James Batley, is currently Australian High Commissioner to Fiji) and there is the perception, despite the involvement of New Zealand and other Pacific islands nations in RAMSI, that the whole operation is basically Australian-led and financed and that Australia's interests are paramount.
RAMSI was initially quite successful. Harold Keke and followers on the Weather Coast were arrested, the police (with RAMSI police as line officers) began to work again, law and order returned to Honiara, prisons were secured, the Ministry of Finance began to operate normally without fear of intimidation or theft, those pursuing criminal behaviour were arrested, the judiciary began to function again and national elections were held.
This success did not result in a RAMSI pull-out from the Solomons, a job successfully done. Instead RAMSI influence and personnel began to increase dramatically. The RAMSI headquarters near the international airport in Honiara have grown into what can only be described as a large military base. Many RAMSI personnel come with large tax-free salaries in Australian dollars and they live in a social and cultural bubble, often relating little with local people, except perhaps to find a Solomon Islands girl friend.
Emphasis soon shifted to "capacity building", helping local staff to develop the capacity to do the work that RAMSI is doing. However, this largely seems to translate into simply giving courses (sometimes very short) that are not relevant to the local situation. RAMSI comes with such a high level of technological development (helicopters, computers, satellite telephones, advanced military equipment) which is often completely lacking in their Solomon Islands counterparts and in some cases will never be viable. Likewise, training of new personnel (new police, for example) has been done without reference to budget available to hire them.
RAMSI personnel have also been given legal immunity from the laws of Solomon Islands. While one can argue that limited immunity is necessary in the pursuance of one's work (free, for example, from SI court orders when uncovering corruption) the present immunity is full and total and means RAMSI staff behaviour is not in any way accountable to the laws of the Solomon Islands. There has been much difficulty with drunk driving by RAMSI personnel, resulting in the death of one Solomon Islander and at least one RAMSI staff.
RAMSI, especially the Australian portion of it, is losing the support of the Solomon Islands population. The 2006 Chinatown riots, in which the rocks were directed as much at RAMSI staff and vehicles as Chinese stores, were a warning sign. Unfortunately, RAMSI has only responded by more self-promotion, -- indeed, more expansion -- rather than having a totally new look at the operation.
The 2009 Australian aid budget to Solomon Islands totals Aust$223.9 million. Of this, $128.5 million (57.6 per cent) goes to RAMSI for security, finance and judiciary work (much, of course, going to Australian companies and never reaching the Solomons) while $95.4 million (42.6 per cent) goes to all the rest of the aid program -- health, education, livelihoods, water, sanitation and gender empowerment etc. It is no wonder poverty increases, Honiara often has no water or electricity, infant and maternal mortality rates remain high and violence against women and children continues. These percentages should be reversed.
The way RAMSI continues to grow beyond what is necessary for the situation and the nature of certain activities (for example, constant weapons testing) makes people wonder whether RAMSI fulfils some Australian needs not really relevant to the Solomons -- are we, for example, a training ground for operations in East Timor, Bougainville or even Afghanistan?
To close with a simple example: Each year RAMSI brings in Australian lawyers to staff the SI Ministry of Justice with magistrates, public prosecutors and public defenders. They are paid a very good tax-free Australian-level salary and have very good living conditions. Local magistrates and other public legal staff are paid at a lower Solomon Islands rate and often flee from government service to the private sector. Giving these local public legal personnel short courses without addressing their basic living needs is not effective.
RAMSI needs a good external evaluation, not by its own staff, who have turf and history to protect, but by a group of people who have the interest of the Solomon Islands at heart, including the development of a functioning national SI police and civil service that can operate without major external intervention. Surely that was the purpose of the original RAMSI intervention. I believe RAMSI has lost its way. It cannot become more popular by more self-promotion, bread and circuses. The current RAMSI does not presage a good future for Australia in the Pacific. RAMSI needs to change its approach totally. These are some of the areas I shall be discussing in the seminar.
Bishop Brown will speak on ‘The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands Six Years On: Taking Stock of Achievements and at a special seminar sponsored by Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University’s Melbourne Campus at Burwood on Tuesday 17 November.