Wealth without exploitation?

A few Solomon Islanders I’ve met say that they want to live like Australians.

I am perhaps feeling a little romantic about the way of life I’m am witnessing in the village, and I tell them that taking up an Australian lifestyle could mean the destruction of community bonds and the environment. I tell them that in Australia, it’s relatively rare to know your neighbour. I have this hunch that it’s to do with how rich everyone is. Many of our river and forests have been poisoned and destroyed. In the village I saw people intimately connected with each other, with the land and with the food they are eating. Most Australians don’t have that.

And yet I would rather live in Australia, where I don’t have to lug water up to the house to flush the toilet, and where I can travel on the train to the city’s centre, and where I can easily satisfy my material needs and desires. Better still, I would rather live in middle class Australia where I can get my two degrees and my nice office job, where I don’t have to sweat under a steaming sun for potato and cassava. I would rather live in Australia, a good base from which I can trot across the globe, comparing this place and that with my last exorbitant adventure.

How can I criticise people’s desires for development, when the very clothes I stand in are the fruit of my wealth?

But I am also critical of this wealth, as much as I enjoy its benefits. Australia’s wealth – my wealth – comes from exploitation, on so many levels, stemming deep from our roots. The land, which contains the resources that drive our wealth, was not only stolen, but its traditional inhabitants were murdered and the people broken. The land itself has now been ripped up and butchered to make way for cities, farms and mines. We exploit the air so we can produce electricity to keep our economy running strong. In the early days the poor of England and Ireland were shipped to Australia and used as slave labour, and later Solomon Islanders were kidnapped and made to work on the sugarcane fields of Queensland. This was all kick-started by the colonial ambitions of our former Mother Country, whose wealth was gleaned by plundering the rest of the world of its land, labour and riches.

And so, we are rich, and we live a nice lifestyle. Sustaining these lifestyles requires more exploitation, of the earth and its less wealthy inhabitants.

My question for Solomon Islands: is it possible to generate wealth without exploitation? And suppose it is possible, can you preserve what is good and beautiful about Solomon Islands people and communities?

The government intervention program of Australia and other regional partners, in Solomon Islands, is called RAMSI. RAMSI came to Solomon Islands after some terrible ‘ethnic’ tension that occurred between 1999 and 2003. People put down their guns almost as soon as RAMSI arrived. Seven years late, RAMSI is still in Solomon Islands, trying to strengthen government institutions and bolster the country’s economic performance.

Australia is the main player, but outside of RAMSI it is not just Australia who is interested in the affairs of Solomon Islands. China and Taiwan are also pouring aid dollars into the country, hoping for power and influence in the region. No doubt Australia is there for the same reason.

The kind of development proposed is usually large-scale projects such as mines and ports. These kinds of projects have the capacity to generate large amounts of money – some of which will no doubt line the pockets of rich foreigners, but some of which can also be used to really help Solomon Islanders. The education system, for example, is in a bad state. Teachers often do not know the material that they are trying to teach, since they have come from that very same education system. Most schools don’t have proper books and libraries.

A well-placed injection of capital could surely improve the situation, which would have flow-on effects of the wider society and to government. Is this money to come from aid donors like Australia, China or Taiwan, who will then hold the country to their demands and conditions? Or could it be funded by the proceeds of a gold mine?

And could a gold mine be run well, without poisoning the rivers that people rely on, without the proceeds going into the pockets of just a few people (probably men), while everybody else suffers from the environmental impact?

There are lots of NGOs doing good, bottom-up development work in Solomon Islands – developing people’s livelihood opportunities, doing piecemeal work on the education system, helping people respond better to the frequent natural disasters. But is it enough?

And enough for what? Enough so that Solomon Islanders can live like Australians? Or just enough so that people have higher levels of education and running water and die less often from malaria?

Ah, so many questions. Anybody got any answers?