An entry in the Rivers Prize
LET ME PREFACE this discourse by stating to the rest of the world that the Melanesian Solution is not Howard’s Pacific Solution nor Rudd’s Papua New Guinea Solution.
In contemplating the rather difficult question that was posed, I tried not to get trapped by tradition.
I was reminded of anthropologist Dan Jorgensen’s view that, in thinking about independence in Papua New Guinea, the founding father’s expressed the modernisation of eastern New Guinea as a Melanesian agenda. They were obviously influenced and mentored by their brothers in Fiji and would later support independence in Vanuatu.
The independence narratives throughout a decolonising Melanesian region are important as they shape the way a people view their place in tradition and modernity.
The embracing of the past and the future are embodied in the conduct of the government and in society. Nowhere is this more publicly expressed then in the institutions of the Anglican and Catholic Churches.
Perhaps it is in the social teachings of Christianity that the people in Melanesia may find a moral grounding. This is necessary in order to avoid moral relativism that can be the source of instability.
It would however be foolish to be too dogmatic about the stance of the Church on some issues but, generally, there would be a net benefit as has been the case since the introduction of the Church into Melanesia.
Whilst the Church has held moral authority, temporal authority in secular government is what has held diverse tribes together. It has been by the force of the state that such diverse and antagonistic parties have been brought to order.
Experience in the Solomons has shown that, once the state collapses, the inherent tribal differences are no longer suppressed and chaos ensues despite the existence of the moral authority of the Church.
It is therefore imperative that there be a mix of strong traditional and modern institutions to ensure order reigns in society. However there seems to be a tendency throughout Melanesia for one institution to undermine another rather than act synergistically for the greater good of the people.
Nowhere is this best represented than in Fiji with the power play between traditional chiefs, Church, Military and Parliament.
At village level, respect for traditional laws/kastom and power structures is important for maintaining order. Fiji has perhaps the best examples of this. In urban settings, the maintenance of the rule of law by the government is a necessary prerequisite for a harmonious society. In places where the Church holds much sway, the society has a generally positive sense of order. Again Fiji tops its neighbours.
Sadly, I can’t think of a good example of a stable and accountable secular government in the region. PNG would have to be the worst example and so, despite having abundant natural resources, it lags behind its smaller brothers in the region in terms of human development indicators.
Solomon Islands has an important lesson to teach its Melanesian brothers about how we as a people should relate to the rest of the world.
In terms of Melanesia’s foreign relations, we are perhaps some of the most exploited people on earth, whether by colonial powers as in West Papua and New Caledonia or by foreign donors as in Vanuatu, PNG and Solomon Islands.
The paradox of the Solomon Islands is that whilst it has been a colony of Australia for some time, it has managed a major coup in providing healthcare for its people with the assistance of Cuba. The Solomons has some of the best child health indicators in the world.
If there is a Melanesian Solution to the problems in the region, it is about understanding what works in the Melanesian context and propagating those good ideas throughout the region.
Unfortunately, the reality is that there are economic and political interests, both internal and external, which will do anything to undermine a stable, progressive, and socially inclusive region.
In light of this, it is important that every Melanesian protects her or his traditional land, as this is the ultimate source of social security and necessary for the survival of future generations.