Matilda Gillis argues that the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (‘RAMSI’) in 2003 was an inevitable failure resulting from the inherent limitations of state building.
‘A folly in the extreme’
The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (‘RAMSI’) was an operation led by Australia and New Zealand in 2003 resulting from unrest in the Solomon Islands. RAMSI was perhaps not a ‘folly in the extreme’ as Alexander Downer initially prophesied that it would be. But it can hardly be described, as it has been, as a success, and ‘a model for good practice to be followed by state builders’. While RAMSI helped to bring the Solomon Islands out of a period of violence, which had had the greatest ‘social, economic and human impacts’ in the history of the country, it did not establish the long-term stability and security required to be called a successful state-building exercise.
State-building is usually undertaken by a state which is deemed to be ‘effective’ and which intervenes in an ‘ineffective’ or failed state. Successful state-building entails:
‘the building or re-building [of] functioning states capable of providing their citizens with a guaranteed level of physical and economic security.’
Drawing upon ‘international best practice’ and ‘detailed knowledge of local circumstances’ is required for that level of security to be achieved, and the security established should rest, not upon the imposition of a Western state model, but on capacity building.
The Solomon Islands was determined by Australia in 2003 to be a ‘failed state’, not simply a state in conflict. The country was in practical chaos, operating without effective authority and with ‘dysfunctional institutions, widespread corruption, a stagnating economy, and growing lawlessness’.
RAMSI existed with the approval of the Solomon Islands government, which remained the ‘repository of executive, legislative and judicial authority’. It was a ‘co-operative intervention’, the overarching purpose of which was to make the nation, ‘peaceful, well-governed and prosperous’. To achieve this, the Mission had three critical areas of focus: i) law and justice, ii) economic governance and iii) machinery of government. In each, there were both short-term initiatives and longer-term goals of capacity building. Accordingly, the RAMSI mandate and its three pillars aligned, at least in theory, with the guarantee of physical and economic security required for the Mission to be a ‘successful state building’ exercise.
RAMSI was well-intentioned and there were initial indications of substantial progress. RAMSI and its Participating Police Force acted as a ‘circuit breaker’. Law and order were ‘restored quickly and without bloodshed’, court facilities were improved and lawyers and magistrates brought in. There was also initial success in rescuing the Solomon Islands’ economy from its quite desperate situation in 2003. By early 2005, for example, ‘the economy showed signs of improvement’ and it continued to grow in the subsequent decade. In addition to addressing key government economic problems, RAMSI re-established functioning governmental institutions and ‘a workable budget’.
These initial successes were, however, largely undermined by RAMSI’s failure to adequately incorporate indigenous structures into the legal, economic and political establishment or focus on long term capacity-expansion. Surveys taken during the Mission indicated that a majority of the local population believed ‘that conflict and lawlessness would return quickly if the Mission were to depart’. Economic improvement was largely restricted to Honiara (despite a large rural population) and there was not enough ‘local ownership to support economic reform in the longer-term’. The Government’s ministries and agencies still need external assistance. Instead of establishing long-term stability, there were simply ‘ad hoc exercises in crisis-management’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions.
State-Building: An Inevitable Failure
Given this, RAMSI should be characterised as, overall, a failure of state-building. But that harsh assertion should be qualified: the failure was an inevitable one and state-building can never really be successful, because it is a doctrine incapable of nuanced application reflective of diverse societies.
State-building considers the relationship between state and society ‘by defining institutions primarily in terms of their policy capacity’, and as neutral structures, as opposed to viewing institutions as bodies made up of complex and powerful social and political relationships. RAMSI accordingly, as was demonstrated here, did not effectively consider, in each pillar of its mandate, the importance of indigenous structures, local consultation and indigenous leadership and this led to its failure to ensure long-term economic and physical security. But this ‘failure’ flows in part from what is arguably a conceptual ‘failure’ in the doctrine of state-building itself, a doctrine which does not reflect the need for institutions to implement the diverse needs and structures of particular states.
Because ‘state-building’ views institutions and the ‘state’ as critical, there is a built-in assumption that fixing ‘state’ institutions will fix the ‘weak’ state. This assumption replaces what might be a more nuanced inquiry into what ‘state failure actually means or why it has come about in the country concerned’. The Solomon Islands and its ‘poor state’ status are perhaps not a ‘consequence of the absence of adequate institutional capacity to be remedied by carefully targeted international technical assistance’. The state is in fact not the most important power base in the Solomon Islands, with power and authority being ‘exercised through informal political and legal structures and mechanisms that vary in shape and organisation’. Instead, ‘entities and organisations, such as the church, landowners and community leaders incorporated in the rebuilding process,’ are more respected and more powerful. RAMSI did not engage with those entities, and the state-building doctrine with its state-centered approach did not contemplate that it should. RAMSI’s heavy emphasis on the state and on remaining ‘constrained by a state-society binary’ meant it could never really be ‘successful’.