The Influence of Culture on Economic Development in Solomon Islands: A Political-Economy Perspective

Australian National University ,
09 January 2012, Solomon Islands

Recent economic policy writing about Solomon Islands has frequently attributed slow development progress to the ‘wantok system’ and its incompatibility with the delivery of the political and administrative functions required of a modern state (Fukuyama 2008; Duncan 2010; Duncan and Nakagawa 2007; Hughes 2004; ADB 2010; Gay 2009).

Within this technocratic literature, ‘wantokism’ is seldom precisely defined or placed within an adequate historical or cultural frame, but is often used as a loose catch-all term for various real or perceived collectivist elements of Solomon
Islands’ culture. While possessing strengths in terms of delivering equity and social cohesion, wantokism is said to fundamentally impede Solomon Islands society’s capacity to deal with collective action problems due to the continued embeddedness of political leadership within personalised networks of reciprocity (Fukuyama 2008:1–2).

Wantokism is, therefore, to blame for endemic problems of political instability, corruption, and slow private sector development — problems that require Western professionalised bureaucratic forms to adequately manage. The only
solution is cultural change and the inculcation of a sense of national identity, which donors have limited scope to facilitate and can only be achieved over many decades. Such arguments have achieved broad legitimacy within the local development community, and are recited by development practitioners far more frequently than more nuanced discussions of interactions between development and Melanesian culture within the anthropology, geography, history,
and political science literatures.