Australian foreign aid justice project keeping a remote Pacific island community safe

Picture: Stefan Armbruster/SBS News

HONIARA,18 JUNE 2018 (SBS) — A legacy of Australia’s $2.8b (US$2. Billion) fourteen-year-long RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands) peacekeeping mission that ended a year ago is being held up as a model for the Solomons – and possibly other Pacific communities.

Everything on Bellona Island, fourteen hours by boat or a bi-weekly hour’s flight from the capital Honiara, moves at a different pace.

There are no police or government officials, no businesses or employment, no internet and barely a mobile phone signal – and when help is needed, it often does not come for the approximately 1,000 people who live there.

“(The people) were very frustrated, they felt like they weren’t part of the country,” said Ali Tuhanuku, the Solomon Islands representative for the World Bank, who was born on Bellona.

World Bank research in the Solomons has found about 80 per cent of communities voice similar concerns.

“The way to improve justice, at least at the local level, is if there is a better link to better access justice – and the way to do that is to have a state-supported person in the community to provide that connection,” saidTuhanuku.

Highlighting Bellona’s isolation, the monthly supply ship arrives three weeks late, finally bringing vital everyday supplies from the capital to the impoverished country.

“Although the boat was late, people are very, very happy because they get their rice,” said Timothy Paikea, a Community Officer on the island.

The fourteen-year-long Australian RAMSI peace-keeping mission in the Solomons ended last year but it had set up the program nationally and paid respected locals to support isolated communities and help cut crime.

Bellona is one of the very few places where the project still operates, backed by the World Bank.

“People of the island had a lot of problems, fighting especially and some were involved in murder,” Paikea told SBS News.

Disconnected from the state, crime and land disputes ran out of control fuelled by alcohol and marijuana.

“I mean fighting on the land and criminal activities are very low now.”

The COs are not police. Their main tool is talking to and supporting the community in everything from helping to unload the supply ship to organising reconciliation ceremonies between perpetrators and victims and their families.

For more serious crimes, they call the police but there is often no money to send them.

The only female officer is focused on the often taboo subject of gender-based violence.

“I go to talk to them, but this year it is reducing in the community,” said CO Jennifer Tay, a former national representative netball player.

For now, it is a unique pilot project for the World Bank, that usually focuses on large-scale governance programmes, but it could bring big changes to many remote communities in the Solomon Islands and possibly across the Pacific region.

“The long-term future we had envisaged was to collect enough evidence (that it works) and for the government to take it on board and roll it out across all the provinces,” said Tuhanuku.

“But the biggest challenge for national government is finance.

“I think it would be very similar to other Melanesian countries.”

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