The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include peace-building as part of a changing paradigm of how to achieve “development.” As a set of guiding principles that cover a broad range of issues, it is hard to interpret the SDGs as 17 stand-alone goals; the keys to “sustainable development” are difficult to isolate. Hence why the SDGs have expanded beyond pure economics. In particular, Goal 16 is “dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.”
The Solomon Islands, unfortunately, perfectly exemplifies why SDG 16 is necessary. Without a secure environment, all human efforts can be burnt up and consumed in the slow simmer of violent conflict.
Starting in 1978, the Solomon Islands achieved and sustained peaceful post-colonial independence for two decades. But by late 1998, uneven economic development had aggravated ethnic animosity on Guadalcanal Island. Approximately 1,000 firearms were looted from local police armories and between 2000-2003 ethno-tribal conflict escalated into a civil war. In 1999 economic installations and infrastructure were also targeted, such as Goldridge Mine and Solomon Islands Plantations Limited’s palm-oil plantation. In the ensuing violence, approximately 200 people were killed and 30,000 people were displaced. According to estimates from Amnesty International, at least 100 child soldiers took part in the conflict.
Rising social disruption affected the government’s ability to operate effectively. By 2000, government expenditure far outstripped revenue. That same year, the dysfunctional government was overthrown and all major industries closed or scaled down. Approximately 8,000 jobs were lost with approximately one-quarter of these in the tuna fishing and cannery industry – a heavy blow in a country with population of about 233,000 people over 18 years old. Two-thirds of the nation’s teachers were required to take unpaid leave.
Due to the conflict, the Solomon Islands has seen export revenue drop by 60 percent since 1997. Per capita GDP halved between 2000 and 2006, accompanied with a rise in unemployment. As of 2014, the World Bank estimated the cost of the conflict for Solomon Islands at 134 percent of GDP.
Today, 80 percent of the population has become subsistence farmers or fishers outside the cash economy. Fully 70 percent of the country’s revenue is provided by exporting non-renewable resources, particularly lumber exports. The recovery in employment from 2003 onward has not reached pre-conflict levels. Thanks to these setbacks, the Solomon Islands ranked 157th out of 187 countries on the 2014 UN Human Development Index.
The Solomon Islands exemplifies all the human suffering and social and economic consequences of conflict. Some costs are quantifiable in terms of loss of life, disability, destruction and displacement, while others are not easily tallied in economic terms: the loss of social capital and trust, disruption of education, and forgone investment and trade. Increasingly, insecure investment environments are seen as major obstacles to development. In short, the material foundations for opportunity are destroyed by violent conflict.
On average civil wars cost the equivalent of 30 years of GDP growth for a medium sized country. WDR research shows that for every three years that a country is affected by major violence, poverty reduction lags behind by 2.7 percentage points.
The SDGs directly address violence and conflict as an integrated development issue. Global lessons and the changing discourse on the security-development overlap are on display in the Solomon Islands, where disarmament is now firmly linked to progressive political change, social stability, and economic development.
In line with global trends, in the Solomon Islands armed ethnic conflict profoundly reduced the living standards of Solomon Islanders and caused possibly irreparable damage to the economy. Subsequently, the post-conflict environment has yet to see a significant return of previous economic indicators, including living standards. Investing in institutions capable of establishing law and order and delivering services is typically much more cost effective than post-conflict remedial interventions.
Yet even now, the causes of the Solomon Islands’ conflict — uneven access to services, economic opportunities, and development spending — remain unaddressed.
There is no panacea for conflict. However, Goal 16 of the SDGs exemplifies a paradigm shift in the normative language of development. For the Solomon Islands, creating effective, accountable, and transparent institutions capable of establishing rule of law and delivering widespread government services (as articulated in Goal 16) is the first step for development.
In the Solomon Islands’ context, “sustainable development” requires safeguarding human beings and their productivity — from individual property rights to public infrastructure — from the possibility of a new wave of conflict that kills and destroys opportunity and human potential. The social and economic benefits of a fully implemented SDG 16 are one of the most important foundations upon which to build a future development strategy for the Solomon Islands.
Nathan Page has a Masters of Development Studies from University of Melbourne specializing in conflict and development. Nathan is the former project coordinator at Pacific Small Arms Action Group. In 2016 he coordinated a workshop in Solomon Islands with government officials on arms control legislation and procedures.