What the state of politics in Solomon Islands means for aid

Written by Terence Wood

In three previous blog posts I’ve discussed elections in Solomon Islands, electoral politics, and how politics contributes to the country’s governance woes. I’ve argued that elections, including those in 2014, haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been ok. And yet, as I’ve discussed, this hasn’t spared the country awful governance. The clientelist nature of the country’s politics, combined with political resource curse issues, has meant that democratic governance in Solomons has not been good governance. Worse still, there is no reason to expect this to change soon.

The million dollar question (technically, the $US 288 million dollar question) for donors is what this means for their work. How should they react to the fact they are working in a country where quality of governance is primarily a product of domestic political economy, very poor and unlikely to improve in a hurry?

My answer is as follows:

1. Don’t cut aid by large amounts. Given the ineffectiveness of aid in transforming Solomon Islands into a well-governed state (despite so much having been given since 2003) and given Australia will have to cut its aid budget somewhere, cuts for Solomons may seem tempting. Yet large cuts would be a mistake. Aid may have not set Solomon Islands on the path to development, but it has helped it become a vaguely coherent state. This may not seem a lot, but it matters. And, because aid is a significant slice of Solomon Islands’ GDP, a big aid cut could easily do economic harm — harm the country doesn’t need right now. More unemployed young men in a post-conflict country would not be a good thing.

2. Take persistent poor governance into account when choosing what to fund. This sounds obvious, but it still seems to be neglected, particularly in infrastructure work. If the government is poorly governed and if it’s going to stay that way, before deciding to upgrade a runway or road, be realistic about whether the government will maintain it thereafter.

3. Be clear that the problems of governance in Solomon Islands are, for the most part, problems of political economy, rather than issues stemming from the capacity of government department staff. While this is unlikely to be news to aid workers at the coalface, issues need to be discussed for what they are, particularly as a lot of governance-related aid work still occurs under the rubric of capacity building. There are capacity issues, and sometimes aid can help with these, but fundamental problems stem from power and incentives percolating down from the political sphere. This doesn’t mean there is no role for aid-funded work in government departments — there is — but we ought to be clear that usually our engagement will be as a countervailing force, placing TA or in-line staff in key government departments as a check against the corroding effects of political economy. The task is foremost one of holding together, not training and improving. To be clear, engagement should still be respectful and empowering in daily practice, but it should also be strategic and understood to be ongoing.

4. Engage intelligently with the provision of social services. Rather than practising isomorphic mimicry we should study carefully what currently works and what doesn’t, and try and see whether comparatively minor modifications can be made to bring sustainable improvements.

5. Learn about, and engage carefully with, the state/society interface. Quite possibly the most encouraging feature of recent years in Solomon Islands has been the rise of new civil society groups such as Forum Solomon Islands International. These groups have tended to avoid partisan participation in politics, opting instead to hold political actors to account for performance in governing. A lot remains to be seen about the groups (particularly whether they can extend their reach from urban elites to rural electorates), but they do offer the promise of political change. Because of this, there is a case for careful — very careful — engagement from donors and aid NGOs. This shouldn’t, I think, involve funding: it’s better for the groups to be powered by passion. But donor country NGOs might be able to share some of the tricks of the campaigning trade. And government donors could share good, clear information on how much aid is given to the Solomon Islands government and what for. Existing discussions on social media fora suggest aid is not well understood; and more knowledge might translate into better efforts to hold the government to account for the aid money it gets. Also, obviously, aid agency staff should be actively discouraging colleagues from other branches of their governments from spying on the NGOs in question.

Hold the line on aid quantity, hold key institutions together, adapt the way we fund the provision of social services, and engage gently with a new form of civil society. None of this is transformative. But aid can’t transform Solomon Islands. Its problems are domestic, born of its own political economy, and ultimately this is where solutions will have to come from too. For the time being though, aid can help: it can hold things together, it can improve people’s lives, and it can enhance, in its own small way, the space for change to grow from within.

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His PhD focused on Solomon Islands electoral politics. Prior to study he worked for the New Zealand Government Aid Program.

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Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.

9 Comments

  • Thanks for the ongoing commentary Terence.

    Your points about political economy problems vs. capacity problems are especially welcome. Re: capacity, I’d point out that they are intimately related: our SI political economy has begotten over time, a set of social contracts, including those involving state actors, that manifest as capacity deficit…and are therefore ripe for targeting by “capacity building”, even though they emanate from systemic configurations that cannot be reached by typical capacity building donor-side inputs.

    I would also amplify your hope/guess about a “new form of domestic civil society” and suggest that changes are already well underway. The difference is that these are based on “civil-societal” relations rather than “civil society organisations”. The fact of a peaceful governmental transition post the 2014 elections is evidence of new operating notions of society and politics percolating amongst a wide plurality of elites, but quite invisible to any analysis of organisations, parties or other institutions – including highly visible ones like FSII.

    Rebecca, despite the similarity of this discussion to many, many others over the years, I don’t anticipate these messages to make a major impact this time around. However, perhaps ongoing, long term involvement by commentators such as Terence, who are increasingly familiar with the Solomons, will represent part of the “long term” capacity building that you speak of.

    • Thanks Paul,

      And thank you for your ongoing comments. I continue to learn from reading them. I think your point about ‘civil-societal relations’ rather than civil society (if that term is taken, as we usually do, to mean NGOs) is particularly well made. I confess to not having thought enough (or at least clearly enough) about this.

      Thank you again for your input.

  • Dear Terrence,

    This is a very interesting piece. Notwithstanding what the reality may seem like, I think that there needs to be a more nuanced approach to understanding governance in developing countries , especially ones that have been subjected to conflicts. I am originally from Trinidad and Tobago , which is also the empirical focus of my phd work, and it is very difficult Sometimes to not see things as negavtive given the quantum of resources the country has and the present state of development.

    Deploying terms like ‘good governance’ and not scrutinizing their institutional and epistemological origins lead to the types of conclusions you’ve seemed to have drawn in this case. I can’t help but sense the very paternalistic tone emerging from the writing; and the tenor seems very negative. I think this largely stems from the conceptual underpinnings of your examination of the Solomon Islands case. The term political economy seems to be used in a negative manner, whereas it actually represents the emoirical reality in all countries as they all have a political economy. Political economy in fact interrogates the historical, socio-cultural, political and economic processes that underpin their respective trajectories and it is neither negative or positive but just is the reality.

    If you would permit me to direct you to work undertaken by Mushtaq Khan, a professor of economics at SOAS, University of London, where I am currently doing my PhD. Khan is known for developing the concept “political settlements” defined as the distribution of organizational and political power between competing groups and classes. I think the problem emerges when one seeks to compare the empirical situation of a developing country with the criteria and requirements of the good governance. It is a serious mismatch and Khan and others outline why this is the case in their work. In fact along with Rodrik, their work suggest that “the evidence supports the claim that the most persistent types of state failure occur when institutions fail because of an inappropriate match between internal political settlements and the institutions and interventions through which states attempt to accelerate transformation and growth (Khan 1995; Rodrik, 2004)” (cited in Khan, 2004)

    It might be useful to take a look. I’m happy to discuss further and even explore our common interests in small island developing states.

    Best regards,
    Keston

    • Dear Keston,

      Thank you for your comment.

      While I agree that terms such as good governance can be nebulous, I don’t think the problem is one of epistemology, but rather definition. And in the Solomons case the definition implicit in my analysis is not particularly problematic: the country’s state is not capable of providing basic public services such as health and eduction which would improve Solomon Islanders’ welfare; nor is it doing a good job of promoting economic development (either through some form of industrial policy of the sort that Kahn or Rodrik might approve of, or through a more Washington Consensus type approach). These complaints are not mine alone. As I emphasised in the first blog post in the series, Solomon Islanders themselves freely express their frustrations with the governance the country experiences.

      I am sorry if my posts on Solomon Islands electoral politics and political economy strike you as negative and paternalistic. In terms of the negativity, it is hard to be too positive given the ongoing challenges the country is facing and the clinetelist trap its politics appear to be stuck in. However, you will note in the final point above that I do emphasise a the encouraging rise of new civil society groups and express my hope that they may hold some of the solutions to the challenges the country faces. I have also in previous posts noted the significant achievement that the country has made in holding relatively good elections.

      In a similar vein, I am sorry that my blog posts on Solomon Islands seem paternalistic to you. However, I would contend that is not really paternalistic to argue that “aid can’t transform Solomon Islands. Its problems are domestic, born of its own political economy, and ultimately this is where solutions will have to come from too. For the time being though, aid can help: it can hold things together, it can improve people’s lives, and it can enhance, in its own small way, the space for change to grow from within.” I would suggest that rather than being paternalistic, I am pointing out that the agency for change here lies foremost with Solomon Islanders themselves, not outside powers.

      Thank you for your suggestion regarding Mushtaq Kahn. I have learnt a lot from reading his work on political settlements. But I do not think — as you appear to suggest — that the problem in Solomons case is that external actors are imposing the wrong ideals of good governance on the country’s politics. For what it’s worth I think the Solomons case fits in quite well with Kahn’s typology as a kind of non-developmental clientelist state. The real issue is what might possibly shift it out of this equilibrium.

      My guess/hope is that will be the rise of a new form of domestic civil society which allows the country to overcome the collective action problems inherent in trying to move to more programmatic politics. I am open to other suggestions though.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Terence

      • Terence,

        Thank you for clarifying and sharing. I’m not very familiar with the empirical subject but I wonder what is the nature of the aid? Civilian or military or conflict prevention? Through which mechanisms (state; the budget; donor programmes; civil society) is it directed? And what are the associated aspects of such aid? Are there particular conditions that must be met? I would be very surprised if the aid that is provided to the SI is untied, and indeed these have implications for how it is first arises and the manner in which it is used and how actors view it if it does not consider the pre-existing distribution of power and how that power might be shifted based on the benefits that are distributed. Khan’s 2014 most recent work on aid and governance comparing Pakistan and Bangladesh is quite insightful in this respect.

        Best wishes,
        Keston

        • Hi Keston,

          Thank you for the comment. To clarify, by aid I mean official development assistance, which excludes military aid. Australian is the largest donor to Solomons and Australian to Solomons is untied. Australian aid is given via a range of mechanisms including government to government (including SWAps) and via civil society. There are some conditionalities involved. Whether these are always good is a subject for another blog post but for now: it is safe to say that I do not think donors have always given aid to Solomons well, or cognisant of the country’s political economy, hence the subject matter of my post.

          Thank you for your engagement.

          Terence

  • Hi Rebecca,

    Great comment thank you.

    I definitely take your point about the political economy on the donor side of the equation, and it is depressing to see just how quickly learning can be swept away by a change of government, and the arrival of a new Minister who really wants to build runways, or whatever. That being said, I think/hope there is also some space for what we learn to influence policy in a more lingering way, just as you hope that there is still scope for individual aid workers to improve things even when matters political economy go awry at the donor end. And while it’s true (as I acknowledge in the post) that some aid workers have been well aware of these issues it didn’t seem to me when I started my research as if all the intellectual dots had been connected when it came to understanding Solomons politics and what politics mean for aid. And I still don’t think that the facts of the country’s political economy are as well connected to the way the aid world thinks about development in Solomons as they could be. Hence my post.

    On the importance of individual civil servants at the recipient end: I definitely agree, it’s not all incentives and the problems of politics, and there is some scope for change, as well as many admirable individuals labouring away under commissions which would have had me give up long ago. And I definitely agree it is worth working with and encouraging such reformers (an argument I’d try and smuggle in, retrospectively, under point 4 above). But I think — on the basis of the political trajectories of other countries — that without political change there are still severe constraints on what can be achieved by individual civil servants alone (much as I agree that it is worth still working with reformers).

    On capacity building – I think you put it well and I agree (although I would say “help”, rather than “work”).

    Thanks again.

    Terence

  • Hi Terence,

    Great post, most of which I agree with!

    But I have to admit that as I read your post with an overwhelming sense of despair. Your points are all well made and (mostly) spot on. But, without meaning any offence to you, none of it is new. I find it both fascinating and distressing that we are still having to “tell” donors this information. Everything said here has been said to and said by donors in the Solomon Islands before.

    So while I totally agree that understanding and learning to work with the political economy in Solomon Islands is critical, I think we also need to understand the political economy of donors – and why there is such an inability to learn and to change the way they work at the operational level, where it counts. Indeed, it feels to me that things have actually gone backwards in terms of the way donors are working in Solomon Islands. My sense is that over the last couple of years, the organisational behaviour of at least some donors and their ability (or willingness) to adapt ways of working to the context in Solomon Islands has deteriorated not improved. Your analysis of the political economy in Solomon Islands could easily be turned onto the donor organisations, and I suspect we might come up with some of the same conclusions!

    Having said that, I also think it is important not to treat donors as a homogenous group and to diminish the agency of individuals working within donor organisations. Just as it is important not to do the same to public servants in Solomon Islands. And this is where I do disagree with you somewhat, in that I think you under-estimate the ability (and will) of public servants to create positive change, albeit in small ways. Public servants are not entirely powerless under corrupt politicians – just as aid workers are not entirely powerless under (at times) ineffective donor organisations. There is much in the day-to-day work of service delivery that goes on without being captured by the whims of corrupt politicians or other elites. I agree that pushing through large-scale reform is unlikely to be achieved by public servants without the support of political elites and they do face repeated barriers even in just getting simple things done, But I do think there is potential to do more than just ‘holding together’ and there are effective, committed, energetic public servants within the system trying to create change – and sometimes succeeding.

    Also while I agree with you that donors focus on training and ‘capacity building’, as its typically delivered by donors, is probably not that helpful, I disagree that donors should therefore focus more on providing TA to hold things together. In my experience I would argue that at times donors default reaction of dumping a TA or inline staff into a department actually creates barriers to progress and is counterproductive. Instead, finding ways to support the emergent strengths within particular departments, whether that be particular individuals who are demonstrating will and ability for progressive change, or new mechanisms or processes that are evolving from within, taking advantage of windows for change that might open up. For me, this is what capacity development is actually about – not just training and TA – and it can work. This is backed by numerous studies and evaluations that have come out of Solomon Islands over the last decade or more. But just as you argue, it needs to also be based on a good understanding of the political economy of the situation as well as a really good understanding of the cultural and personal dynamics involved; something donors are spectacularly bad at as they rotate their staff every couple of years, rely on short term (and yes, even 3 years is short term) advisers, and value technical expertise over understanding of the cultural/social context. Hem no moa.

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