Monday, 18 July 2011 1:39 PM

33 Years On

Dear editor,

Recently our nation celebrated 33 years of independence. As a kid growing up in the village, I used to see my fellow villagers getting excited about this particular day. In our language, independence (Tetu kakaike) is literally translated as standing alone, rather, not in terms of isolation but maturity and coming of age.
The word is used predominantly when toddlers stood for the first time unaided. This indeed is a cause for celebration. We have come of age. We are, in our own right a nation - sovereign.

Looking back to our 33 years of independence, it can be said that we've had some good times and bad. I couldn't help but wonder if this is the Solomon Islands our founding fathers envisaged it to be 33 years ago.

As I am reflecting on this special day, I'd like to look at a few key areas that might help shed some light on what had gone by and perhaps some indications of what is to come.

It is interesting that our national anthem talks about - Joy, Peace, Progress and Prosperity. Today, I'd like to reflect on prosperity and leave the others to you to reflect on. In particular, I'd like to unpack along the economic discourse, once again leaving the social and environmental discourse for you my fellow citizens to think about. To help me do this, I've looked at some data to provide some insight into our economic progress.

As a generation Y 'er (1980s onwards), I simply don't know what it was like before independence, data on this is fairly non-existent. However, for the sake of this special day, I'd like to pose the question - Have we progressed and prospered economically? Well, lets compare ourselves to other comparable economies of 33 years ago and now - in our own region and elsewhere.

First of all lets look at how far we've come. Currently our population is estimated at about 530,000 give or take with a nominal GDP per capita of $1223. We are ranked as a lesser developed nation with high unemployment. 75 % of our labour force is engaged in subsistence farming and fishing (in our rural areas). Timber and forestry products are on the decline - dangerously over exploited. My own tribal land has been affected by this despite tribal opposition to loggers - a few con men and the corrupt officials and elected members of the provincial government did the trick for us. So much for tribal ownership. Seemed like government authorities including the ministry of forestry all the way to the CID are on the loggers books. What's true for us is probably true for most Solomon Islanders.

On a lighter note, Solomons is rich in mineral resources such as lead, zinc, nickel and gold, albeit underdeveloped and open for exploitation just like logging. Our fishery is a great potential for domestic economic expansion IF managed properly. Our tourism sector is currently next to non-existent with growth hindered via lack of infrastructure and transportation (and an uncertain political climate for investment by foreigners with the money and know how). This is a shame, I believe we have a distinct economic advantage on this compared to others in our region.

Comparable countries in our region, that I'd like to butt ourselves against are Vanuatu and Fiji (based on quite a lot of similar features that I am sure, most people would know ie - government, people.etc..) and elsewhere - Bahamas and Barbados (for the same reason). US dollar is used.

Lets look at Vanuatu, they have a similar background to us - were looked after (colonised) by Britain and France before gaining independence about the same time we did. Their population is half of ours but with a higher nominal GDP per capita of $2,835. Their economy is a little bit more robust than ours. Apart from Agriculture and other primary producing industries, they have a sound tourism industry and an offshore financial services industry - basically, their service industry is bigger than ours. Perhaps they are more politically stable than us - investment confidence matters here!

We can't compare ourselves to PNG (for obvious reasons) but we can with Fiji. They have a slightly bigger population than ours (850,000) with a higher nominal GDP per capita of $3,518. They liberalise their economy in the 90s that resulted in a boom and an expansion. They have a very good tourism sector with a bit more robust economy (a mixture of a few industries so they are not so exposed and reliant on putting their eggs in one basket). Political instability however resulted in slowing their economy down. Land tenure uncertainties also played some role in this.

The Bahamas and Barbados are Caribbean small island states with similar starts to their nationhood as us. Perhaps we were more similar 33 years ago than now, but this is the point. These two countries are about the size of Vanuatu in their population but with a significantly higher nominal GDP per capita of about $22,000 and $15,000 respectively. Their success is attributed to a more developed economy which is more robust. Their governments are more stable with liberalised economies that encourage foreign investment. They've invested heavily in tourism some 20 years ago - are now ripping the rewards. Tourism accounted for more than 50% of their GDP per capita - a bit exposed (GFC tested that out a few years ago). They don't have mineral resources like we do though.

Clearly the Solomon Islands has a distinct economic advantage given our resources base and our potential in tourism. Our local economy has an over reliance on the forestry sector which is unsustainable, infact we are running out of forests to log. What we need is a more robust, mixed economy and an increase in the services sector (we are primarily a primary producing economy supplemented by hand-outs from elsewhere). In comparing ourselves to other comparable economies, it is very clear that tourism is a clear winner - look at Vanuatu, Fiji, Bahamas and Barbados (the latter two countries as a reference point for 33 years ago - they are far ahead now!). What I am trying to get at is that if our leaders had done their homework 30 odd years ago, and set us up, we would be in a similar position to the Bahamas. If you have read Dr Transform's essay a few years ago, King George High School was pretty much it - what a missed opportunity.

If you think about what I've outlined above (or tried to), we can come to a conclusion that we need a stable government, a liberalised economy (the Indians and the Chinees tried it too - it sells itself really), capital investment in the right areas that will stimulate our economy from the grassroots up. We need to evolve from relying primarily on logs and fish to setting up our services sector. Lets look at what works elsewhere and adopt it. There is promise in our mineral resources, but we have to be careful though. Our government needs to think strategically here, proper fiscal policies need to be put in place to protect our interests (I am talking economic, social and environmental). Look at what happens in Africa, rich in resources but boy completely behind economically.

It is not a secret, we have an economic distinctive advantage over Vanuatu, Fiji, Bahamas and Barbados.

Lets hope, the next 33 years are going to be good to us.

Hapi Idipedens Dei Wantoks!

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

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