|Choiseul is remote even by Solomon Islands standards: some parts of the province are one hour away by boat from a telephone, and two days by ship from the capital.
The young woman shows me her cash book. The checks and cash payments are neatly entered and tallied in the balance column. Checks are mostly to suppliers for cement, roofing sheets, nails, and other hardware, cash payments are largely for transport - fuel or the hire of boats. She is the treasurer for a Sub-project Implementation Committee under the Solomon Islands Rural Development Program (RDP*), a community-driven development project. The committee is overseeing the building of staff housing for a clinic in a village in Choiseul Province, Solomon Islands, and I went there as part of a mid-term review for the program.
The work of the treasurers on these village-level implementation committees would require careful coordination in any context, but in Choiseul and other remote areas of Solomon Islands is further complicated further by the distance her village is from essential services. The treasurer and the other committee members must travel approximately an hour by boat to Taro, the provincial capital. In Taro they can use the phone to ask for quotes or place orders with suppliers in Honiara, the country’s capital, which is approximately two days journey by ship from Choiseul. This is also the only place in the province with a bank branch, to cash checks or transfer funds. Suppliers are all in Honiara, but shipping is irregular and the supply of consumer goods irregular. The proprietress of the guest house we stayed at, the only one in Taro, complained of the irregular supply of cooking gas.
Tucked in the far western corner of the country, Choiseul is remote even by Solomon Island standards. The mountains of Bougainville in neighboring Papua New Guinea loom on the horizon. The province is very thinly populated, with around 30,000 people spread across 3,800 sq. km, with only 12 km of road in the province. All transport is by ship or outboard and is very costly. While we visit one village, a barge/landing craft pulls in to off-load cement for an RDP-funded water supply project. We pass it several times on the way back to Taro as it makes its way up the coast, dropping off and picking up goods.
|The Rural Development Program review team on a visit to Choiseul.
Taro, whimsically located on an islet off the mainland, has one of the province’s only two grass airstrips, and is one of very few locations with electricity and telephone coverage in Choiseul. Conservation groups are trying to declare a large stretch of coast on the northwest of the main island a conservation area – to preserve the natural beauty and protect the area from logging. In the villages we visit, implementation committee members say they are happy with the project. The project is providing them with housing for clinic staff, without which it is difficult to keep qualified nurses in remote provincial areas.
But more importantly the community is in charge of the decisions and the money. Using community-driven development approaches, facilitated by the RDP Community Helpers, the village has identified its own priorities. Following approval, implementation committees are responsible for opening bank accounts, project design and planning, procuring goods, book-keeping, and overseeing construction, with back-up from the RDP provincial team. According to community members this makes a welcome change from the tradition of funds and projects being managed externally. Furthermore, community members like the young treasurer are learning valuable new skills - most of the implementation committee treasurers in Choiseul are women.
*The Solomon Islands Rural Development Program, which is supported by the World Bank, AusAID, and the European Union, is a community driven development project that is being implemented by the Solomon Islands Ministry of Development Planning and Aid Coordination. The RDP has been operating in Solomon Islands since 2008 and is set to run till 2012.