Syndicate content

Landing in Gizo: Understanding the Solomon Islands

Edith Bowles's picture

The country is often dismissed as the Pacific's failed state, yet conversations with community members and officials reveal clear visions of what a state can provide in terms of services and a role in community life.
The Gizo airport in Solomon Islands has no parking lot, because there is no road – only a jetty out into the lagoon. It took me several minutes and a walk around the solitary airport building to work this out, by which point my plane had already headed back to Honiara, the country’s capital.

The Gizo airstrip, reportedly built for a visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the 1970s, occupies the entire length of the island of Nusatupe – as a quick look at Google Maps confirms. It is located picturesquely, if ultimately somewhat inconveniently, about two kilometers from the provincial capital island of Gizo. As I was beginning to wonder how I was going to make my way to Gizo, a team from the Government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock fortunately pulled up in an outboard motorboat.

In December, just three months after my arrival in the Solomon Islands to serve as the World Bank’s country manager, I chose Western Province for my second trip out of Honiara. One of the main goals in my first year on the job is to visit each of the nine provinces to begin gaining some understanding of this small but complex country.

We spent part of one day visiting communities affected by the tsunami in 2007. Our first stop was to Bush's fuel station, which could be reached through a maze of backhoes, graders, and steam rollers succumbing to various stages of rust. Mr. Bush, the owner, however, had no fuel, so we placed our faith in the Ministry's pickup truck, despite its long dead fuel gauge.

Western Province is the largest center of private sector activity in Solomon Islands outside of Honiara. On our second day there, we headed off to Kolambangara Island to visit Kolambangara Forest Products Limited, the only sustainable plantation forestry company in the Solomons and one of the biggest employers in the province. The trip took us past Kennedy Island, where John F. Kennedy was shipwrecked during World War II. We passed a school of small dolphins, flying fish, and frigate birds.

I chose Western Province for my second trip out of Honiara. One of the main goals in my first year on the job is to visit each of the nine provinces to begin gaining some understanding of this small but complex country.
We also visited Noro, home to the Soltai Tuna canning plant, a rural training center, and the United Church headquarters – the church oversees the majority of schools in the province.

With its great beauty, Western Province is also the center of the Solomons tourism industry, which has slowly been regaining ground after a steep drop in arrivals during tensions. Small boutique resorts occupy some of the little islands around Gizo and Marovo Lagoon, one of the largest lagoons in the world. All travel is by boat, and I was comfortably perched on my newly procured life jacket.

The days spent in the outboard boat going from island to island were long, salty, and instructive. The country is often dismissed as the Pacific's failed state, yet conversations with community members and officials revealed clear, and not unreasonable, visions of what a state can provide in terms of services and a role in community life. Systems and institutions exist, although undermined by lack of resources and the years of conflict.

Having an office in the country for the first time will hopefully allow the World Bank to better understand these aspirations and support them through programs like the Rural Development Program (which I plan to write about in a future blog post), along with projects in the areas of energy, health, telecommunications, and justice. Service delivery and economic development in many parts of Solomon Islands where travel takes place largely on the water is a challenge to the imagination. I hope through the new office, which opened in November 2008, we can work with government and donor partners to rise to this challenge.

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on
Dear Blogger One should not confuse the city of Gizo (which is the capital of the Solomons' Western Province) with the island of Ghizo (in which such city is located. I was told there once that Ghizo was the name of a local chap famous for his head-hunting abilities. This practice, common in Melanesia, extended into the Solomons, as attested by Skull Island as well as the head-hunters of Malaita described by Jack London in "Cruise of the Snark" (his non-fictional, sailing adventure in the South Pacific). Cheers

Submitted by smhook on
Thanks Edith for the entry, I am a new entrant to the field but appreciate the effort that the Bank is making to increase its level of awareness of issues in the Pacific region. Such a beautiful place that has opportunities for development. I agree that the title 'failed state' is wrong and it is better to view the Solomon Islands as an 'emerging state' with ample potential - just lacking the institutional capacity to undertake the range of reforms and policy developments that we consider to be important for a modern state. I look forward to more entries from Bank staff on the Pacific as it is an area that can be easily overlooked when lumped with East Asia.

Submitted by Stephen on
Solomon Islanders are nice people but Honiara is a disaster. Centralised government is a foreign concept and can not work in Melanesia. RAMSI can do no more and should leave quietly. The Solomon Islands government is only becoming more aid dependent and the people on the islands get very little.

Submitted by John L Raybould on
Fascinating reading! In 1961 it was my privilege to spend a year in Western Province under the auspices of VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), at what was then the Methodist Mission on New Georgia, Choiseul and Banga. In 1991, my wife's brother, a town planner, volunteered for VSO and was posted to Gizo as Principal Planning Officer. We had wondered how to celebrate our 1991 Silver Wedding so then we knew! The 20th century had arrived in the Solomons with satellite communications and tiny airstrips for a 12 seater prop aircraft on the 7 main islands. My fears that the late 20th century had spoiled the islands were allayed. The only noticeable changes were that most of the dugout canoes have been replaced by fibreglass canoes with an outboard motor. Otherwise, the people and the scenery were as unspoilt as they were 30 years before - a forgotten paradise indeed! Now long retired in Suffolk, England, I have some personal photographs, slides, prints and video of Skull Island but locating where they are in my tip of a study would be a challenge and I could only send you scans of the prints. However, while they seem to have disappeared from the web, I have some © images by Mike McCoy, Rob & Jimmy and John Bantin should anyone wish to see them. raybould@sandawana.wanadoo.co.uk

Mr. Raybould, Thank you very much for commenting on the blog and sharing your experiences from Solomon Islands, a decade before independence. Even though the 21st century has arrived in form of mobile phones, Western Province remains a beautiful place where it is a privilege to work. Kind Regards, Edie

Add new comment