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Beating Unemployment in the Solomon Islands

Alison Ofotalau's picture
Availability of work has provided new opportunities for people in Honiara.

We were shooting a film in the main street of Honiara about the Rapid Employment Project  when a guy, curious about what we were doing, introduced himself. "What do you do", we ask? I’m a 'Master Liu' he says. That got some of us not familiar with the term thinking. But 'masta liu' is a popular term in Solomon Islands’ pijin, referring to someone who is a loiterer, who wanders aimlessly about the streets. 'Masta liu' is synonymous with unemployment.

This is common to the capital Honiara and other urban centers in Solomon Islands, and is directly related to the challenges of urbanization. Many people who find themselves in a 'masta liu' situation will not openly admit it. It can be a disparaging term, and 'masta lius' are a common subject of jokes or ridicule in popular culture and songs.

Unemployment is an issue for many Solomon Islanders, especially young people. In Honiara alone, 80 percent of youth lack jobs.  Women and youth are among the most vulnerable, which can lead to social problems like increased crime, prostitution and anti-social behavior. In Honiara, unemployed women sit for long hours both during the day and night selling food, cigarettes and whatever they can get their hands on to earn an income.

People are flocking to Honiara from rural areas in search of jobs and opportunities but, for recent migrants, life in the city can be disappointing. Generally there are too few jobs to go around - a situation that was exacerbated by the global economic slowdown in 2009. Even university graduates have found themselves in the position of a 'masta liu' and almost one third of Honiara’s population is living in poverty. High unemployment is seen to be a potential trigger for conflict, in a country that is recovering from the impact of the “tensions” in 1998-2003 , and the subsequent riots of 2006.

The government, with the support of the World Bank, the governments of Australia and New Zealand through the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility, and the State and Peace building Fund, recently created the Rapid Employment Project (REP  to give people in vulnerable communities training and short term public works employment in order to improve their job prospects, while giving them a cash income.

Starting June 2010, the REP has offered training and work placement opportunities to over 4,500 people – almost 60 percent of whom are women and over 50 percent are youth. An estimated US$1 million has been paid out in wage, and is making an impact on the lives of those who were given a chance to work for the REP.