|The Courier N° 184 - Jan - Feb 2001 - Dossier: Press and Democracy - Country Reports: St Kitts and Nevis (EC Courier, 2001, 96 p.)|
|Focus on development|
by Dave Russell
Working with Solomon Islands engineers and VSO volunteers on the implementation of an EDF-funded infrastructure project in the Solomon Islands during difficult times
Beautiful islands, sleepy lagoons with friendly and hard-working people. A fair description of the Solomon Islands until recently, when they have been troubled with ethnic tensions. The unrest has led to the displacement of over 20,000 people, and resulted in armed rival militia groups warring with each other. Over 100 people have been reported killed in the conflict and there has been a virtual collapse of law and order since June last year.
We are all hopeful that the recent signing of a Peace Agreement in Australia between the warring factions means that the Solomon Islands are headed toward a restoration of law and order and peaceful development. Much has been damaged and much has to be restored, including a shattered economy. There is now however an air of confidence and a will among the people to work together to secure a lasting peace and a period of reconciliation and reconstruction. With some assistance from friendly aid donors, and given a few years, they will.
Triple span log bridge built entirely by hand
The Malaita Rural Infrastructure Project
Malaita is one of nine island Provinces that make up the independent state of Solomon Islands. It is the most densely-populated, and suffers from a shortage of arable land.
I have worked in developing countries for over 30 years as a civil engineer involved with many rural development projects. Since April 1995, and throughout the recent troubled times, I have been working with dedicated Solomon Island engineers and VSO volunteers as the Project Manager of a team engaged in the implementation of the Malaita Rural Infrastructure Project (MRIP).
The project was conceived in 1991 and following two feasibility studies in 1992 and 1993 a budget of 6 million Euros was secured from the 7th EDF.
The scope of the project includes the construction of about 120 km of gravel roads and three wharfs. Construction is about 65% complete. Some of the roads give access to coastal areas with a potential for development of cash cropping. Other roads penetrate inland to areas once traditionally farmed, but since the arrival of missionaries and Mission Stations along the coast, are now largely abandoned. The reason for such roads is to attract the traditional inland landowners back from the overpopulated coastal strips. The sudden arrival of many thousands of displaced people from Guadalcanal has undoubtedly heightened the relevance of the project.
It was decided that the construction would be carried out using a mixture of labour-intensive methods and more traditional machine-based methods.
Almost from the start of the implementation phase a series of external events conspired to delay progress and to increase cost. In July 1995 an unfortunate deterioration of the relationship between the EU and the Solomon Islands Government developed (now happily resolved). This delayed for about three years the procurement of the heavy plant and bridging materials needed for the project. Everything had to be done by hand. We renovated several dilapidated government tractors and purchased hundreds of wheelbarrows and other light equipment and hand tools. The work was very heavy and slow going. Access was very difficult. Having vehicles of our own meant we had to hire or borrow, and these vehicles were often old and unreliable, needing extensive repairs. Getting to the construction sites involved a three-hour drive over some pretty rough roads; breakdowns were frequent.
Throughout the first 12 months, despite a vigorous advertising campaign, the project had failed to identify any suitable Solomon Islands civil engineers. Fortunately this problem had been foreseen, and when I arrived there were already three VSO volunteer civil engineers on site. Ambrose, the first Solomon Islands engineer, was engaged. He has remained loyally with the project and is currently the Counterpart Project Manager. Up to this point the three volunteers had carried out all field supervision.
We now have four Solomon Islands engineers and one volunteer employed in the capacity of mechanical adviser.
Perseverance pays off eventually. I am rather proud of our team. It has never been easy for any of them. There have been constant problems on site to be overcome and hardships to be endured. They are the ones who must be given the credit for the physical achievements that the project can claim to date.
Roughly when Ambrose joined us, the labour-based activities were beginning to make an impression and the labour force had been built up to its full strength of about 500 workers. Then national minimum wage was increased by 85%. It began to feel as if there was a hex on the project! Were it not for the constant encouragement and support from individuals in both the National and Provincial Governments and the obvious commitment of the rural communities where we were working, I might have been tempted to throw in the towel and recommend that the project be suspended.
Transporting labour based equipment
The Original Team 1998 - Ambrose middle back (white shirt), me middle front
The heavy machines and the beautiful shining new Landrovers finally did arrive in March and August last year and the bridging materials followed in December. There have been initial teething problems but in general the machines are working well. But, because they are of European origin and because the European manufacturers have not as far as I can tell targeted the Pacific Region as a sales destination, they are the only ones of their type in the country. When we need a spare part it has to be ordered from overseas. This means repair-down times of several weeks.
Our project relies heavily on good management/worker relationships and I am proud to say that the violent events which followed the June 5 coup have had only minimal impact on our schedules; the workers, engineers and office support staff have all carried on regardless of the dangerous situation surrounding them. We have suffered increased difficulties of communication and of ordering spare parts and other project supplies. Security has been a nightmare particularly in the capital city Honiara, where we maintain a support office. For a time in Honiara looting was rife. All telephone communications between Malaita and Honiara were severed in May and the service has not yet been restored. International passenger flights were for a time suspended. Air freighted supplies are suffering long delays due to erratic and for a time non-existent services. VSO suspended operations and evacuated all volunteers (including two working for MRIP) and many businesses in Honiara have either closed down or continue to operate with reduced staff.
During the height of the troubles I shared a concern with some of the non-Malaitan staff that they might become victims of resentment by Malaitans themselves displaced from Guadalcanal Province not wanting to see non-Malaitans allowed to work in their Province. Reason appears to have prevailed and no serious incidents have occurred.
We are all now looking forward to a successful conclusion to our project. The roads and wharfs being constructed here will play a major role in the future development of Malaita. The challenge for the future beyond MRIP will be to ensure that the infrastructure is maintained. The EU is already working with the Government to create new assistance projects aimed at structural strengthening and rebuilding the Ministry responsible for the maintenance.
Finally, I am very grateful to the Solomon Islanders for being so welcoming and dedicated, and for allowing me to spend some time in their beautiful province.