Lessons of the tsunami the world forgot
Michael Howard reports on the sad aftermath of the storm that swept the Solomon Islands in April and the need to keep aid out of the hands of its government — and of the EU At 7.40 a.m. on 2 April the Solomon Islands were struck by a major earthquake and a large tsunami. At least 52 people were killed, more than 900 homes were destroyed, and thousands of people were left homeless.
Little attention was paid to this at the time and not much more since. After all, they are a remote string of tropical islands far away in the South Pacific, hundreds of miles away even from Australia. However exotic and romantic they sound, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that they do not rate very highly on our list of priorities.
Yet the fate of the Solomon Islands is important. Not just because its people share the planet with us and so have claims on our common humanity. Not only because they are members of the Commonwealth, and so have claims on that common bond of solidarity. The biggest reason, apart from the overriding need to relieve human suffering, lies in the lessons that can be drawn from that unhappy land in the way we organise and distribute the help that we give.
The island of Ghizo was worst hit by the tsunami. There 38 people were killed, and the damage to property was widespread and devastating.
I visited it in August, more than four months after the tsunami, as part of a Commonwealth parliamentary delegation. The place looked as though the tsunami had struck the day before. Hundreds of families were living in makeshift shelters composed of a few sticks covered with tarpaulin, which after four months of tropical rainfall — it rained almost incessantly while we were there — badly needed replacing. The need for better accommodation was desperate.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster a significant amount of financial assistance was made available — from the UK, the EU and Taiwan. Most of it is still in the coffers of the ministry of finance. The minister of finance is the constituency member of parliament for Ghizo (the Solomon Islands are a parliamentary democracy). We asked the villagers we met how much time he had spent there since the tsunami. The answer was three hours.
Some NGOs — the French Red Cross, Australian Save the Children — have done sterling work, but there is no doubt that the aid that was made available has not gone to the people whose need for it is so desperately acute.
What lessons can be drawn?
It is clear that in countries such as the Solomon Islands, where standards of governance have so much to be desired, it is often little use giving aid to the government. Ways must be found of giving the aid directly to the communities affected, making use of non-governmental organisations where possible.
Second, a point that I know will be dismissed as the routine rantings of a Eurosceptic — we really must reconsider the extent of British aid that is given via the EU.
EU aid is beset by bureaucracy — a point recognised on all sides in the Solomon Islands. British aid, on the other hand, has a well-deserved and longstanding reputation for being effective, speedy and well targeted. Yet much more of the aid we supply to the Solomon Islands now goes via the EU than the amount we give directly.
This is not a question that should be determined by our attitude to the European Union. It should be determined by our attitude to the victims who need our help. If the government is serious in all its protestations that it wants to alleviate world poverty, the thing that would make the biggest difference would be the repatriation of our aid programme from the EU.
Of course, in countries such as the Solomon Islands, there are deeper problems of governance. It is, as I have said, a parliamentary democracy in which the last elections were regarded by international observers as free and fair. But the prime minister who emerged from the process was deposed after internal unrest. And, as the attitude of the finance minister to the tsunami in his constituency exemplifies, the ability of the government to meet the country's challenges is very questionable.
Inevitably, there is suspicion of corruption. There are widespread rumours, impossible to substantiate, that the government of Taiwan, in addition to its legitimate aid programme, makes financial inducements available to individual politicians that distort and sometimes thwart the democratic preferences of the people. The government of Taiwan only exists by virtue of American protection. So there are levers that can be used to persuade Taiwan to change its behaviour.
The Australian government, to its credit, is leading a significant regional effort with New Zealand and other Pacific nations to strengthen the institutions of the Solomon Islands and to deal with the problems of governance. But their efforts are often obstructed by the suspicious defensiveness of the local government.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that the Solomon Islands have huge potential to improve the miserable quality of life that most of its people suffer. There is significant mineral wealth and huge opportunities for tourism.
In addition to the tropical climate — and I was assured it doesn't rain all the time — the diving is superb. Not only is there an abundance of precious coral, there are also numerous wrecks of American and Japanese naval vessels, the haunting reminder that this is where one of the most protracted and significant battles of the Pacific was fought in the second world war.
Just across from the hotel where we spent one night was the island on which John E Kennedy was shipwrecked after his patrol boat, the famous PT-109, was sliced in two by a Japanese warship. Nearby is another island where he survived for ten days until his rescuers arrived.
The only things needed to improve the condition of the struggling people who inhabit these islands are good government and well-targeted and effective aid. What part will our government play in helping to deliver them?
Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative party.