Monday, 5 July 2010 8:11 AM

Bottom-Up Approach: Whose Bottom? Who/What is Approaching?

Whenever I hear the term, "Bottom-Up Approach," being invoked by politicians, my gut squirms with uneasiness.

The term conjures uncomfortable images that make me ask: Whose bottom? Who, or what is approaching? Who is being referred to as "the bottom"?

Consequently, if I were a politician looking for catch phrases and sound bites to attach to my public image and help me win the up-coming elections, I wouldn't use the term, "bottom-up approach".

I am certain there are more creative and less intrusive catch phrases.

The old and overused cliché, "grassroots development," for example, is more neutral and invokes images of "grass" on a beautiful lawn, and "roots" add the picture of being down-to-earth and connected.

But, while I could relate to "grassroots", I wouldn't employ it. It's overused.

The term, "Bottom-Up Approach" has, in the past couple of years, crawled into Solomon Islands political lexicon and gained popularity amongst current and intending politicians. There are also other terms and phrases that are being thrown around by those who have their eyes set on a chair in that house on the hill.

As the election fever fires up, so has the language associated with it, proving that politics is as much about rhetoric and marketing as it is about sound policies and tangible outcomes.

In the next month, as politicians shift into high gear and press down on the campaign pedal, rhetoric will become the corner stone of political marketing.

This is an age-long art that has over time been perfected by orators and guided by five fundamental canons: invention or discovery, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

Solomon Islands politicians have varying degrees of rhetorical and oratorical skills: some are reasonably good, while others are simply terrible.

But, my intention here is not to comment on the rhetorical and oratorical skills of our politicians. Rather, I want to examine one particular term that has recently featured in political rhetoric in our country: "Bottom-Up Approach"

The term first came to prominence in the past four years, especially during the time of the Grand Coalition for Change (GCC) government that Manasseh Sogavare led for a brief period from 2006 to December 2007.

In January 2008 when Dr. Derek Sikua launched the Coalition for National Unity and Rural Advancement (CNURA) Government, he adopted the term and was reported in the Solomon Times Online (January 19, 2008) as saying that "the bottom up approach seeks to ensure that the majority of the country's population that live in villages is given priority, and the standard of living in villages can be improved." He went on to say that the Bottom-Up Approach is about all of us taking "responsibility for our own lives and that of our families and work hard at it."

At the end of January 2010, Manasseh Sogavare, speaking at the launch of OUR Party in Auki, promised that if voted into power his party would re-introduce the "bottom-up approach development strategy."

In these discussions it is the majority of our people who live in rural areas - and increasingly in the squatter settlements of Honiara - that are regarded as being at the "bottom", or constituting "the bottom" of our social hierarchy.

This term implies that the government intends to give power to people, to approach development from people's point of view, and ensure that they are at the center of development outcomes - to improve the living conditions of our people.

It implies that the government intends to take the needs and wishes of the majority of our people as the starting point of development; that they are both the source of development ideas and the beneficiaries of its outcomes.

These are big ideas with enormous intentions.

For most of our people - at least for those of us from Haimarao on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal - the questions are simple: Has the "Bottom-Up Approach" improved our livelihoods? Have our access to opportunities improved? Or, have we been violated "bottom-up", ignored, marginalized and impoverished by misinformed government policies and poor management?

Since the term was first used, no one has provided a satisfactory explanation of why our people are regarded as "the bottom" and how the "Bottom-Up Approach" will be implemented. If it is a "development strategy", as Sogavare states, then there should be an outline of how it will be implemented and by now there should be tangible results on the ground.

But, I haven't seen any improvement on people's lives as Sikua promised: ". . . the standard of living in villages can be improved." It hasn't. At least not here on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. In fact, things have either worsened, or we have reverted back to doing things the way they were done in the 1960s.

As I ponder over the "Bottom-Up Approach", I watch as Avelino Suqeboli, a man who lives near the airstrip at Haimarao (Avuavu), carry firewood from the dried-up banks of the Taqeata River. The lumbers are heavy. His back bends to the weight as he clambers towards the shed that houses the copra drier at the edge of the coconut plantation.

If the government and those who occupy its offices are serious about improving our livelihood then people like Avelino should not be carrying firewood for making copra.

Not at this day and age when coconut oil pressing machines have long been invented.

The establishment of oil pressing machines around the country would greatly reduce the labor, time and financial costs of production, reduce the cost of transportation, add value to the product, increase returns and put money in the pocket of a greater number of people.

Avelino would no longer have to carry heavy lumbers to dry copra; a task that has over the years contributed to his ill health. He, like others in the village, have long taken responsibility of their lives and worked hard - as Sikua requested - but, successive governments have failed them.

It is the successive governments, not our people, that have gone "bottom-up". Most of our people - like Avelino - have done their part in "working hard" and "taking responsibilities for their lives."

That afternoon people from the surrounding villages gathered to cut the grass at the Haimarao airstrip. They did it the old fashion way: with bush knife. One of them was Michael Talanimoli, now old and fragile, but still struggling to make a few dollars. I watch as he bends over and swings his aging arm, driving the bush knife into the thick grass.

My heart sunk as questions flooded my mind: Why should people cut grass manually in the 21st Century after lawn mowers and mechanical grass slashers have long been invented? Where has all the rural development funds (like the RCDF, Millennium Funds, etc.) gone? Why are we cleaning the airstrip in the same way did in the 1960s and 70s?

The day after, I went to the Avuavu Clinic. It was built fifty years ago by a volunteer group from New Zealand organized by the Catholic Church. Since then, successive post-independent Solomon Island governments have done nothing to improve the infrastructure. Most of the louvers had fallen off, the paints - which I am sure contained lead - had peeled off, the tiles - which most certainly contained asbestos - were peeling off and disintegrating. The beds were bare and there was hardly any medicine. It looked more like a health hazard more than a health center.

It was these observations (plus many others) that have made me lose hope on the concept of "Bottom-Up Approach."

That evening, as I watched the sun set, an eerie feeling crawled through my bones and veins. It seems that the next batch of politicians will continue to use rhetoric and terms like the "Bottom-Up Approach" to misinform and marginalize our people. That will contribute to the vulnerability of our collective bottoms, creating a nation of "bottoms up".

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Dr. Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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