12 May 2014


The Lowy Institute has released a dour - or clear-headed, depending on yr affiliation - report [PDF] on RAMSI, consistent with comments in the Carr Diaries about Australian engagement in Afghanistan

In identifying 'lessons learned' the Institute comments -
RAMSI's limited successes in improving public sector processes, capacity and accountability, have relied largely on encouraging good governance practices and the effective practice of the rule of law amongst officials. But ultimately serious change was never going to occur without political leaders taking responsibility for changing the system. Unfortunately the political system of Solomon Islands encourages the political class to undermine the rule of law and spend ever-increasing sums of money on enriching themselves and their supporters. RAMSI had neither the mandate nor the leverage to reform the politics of Solomon Islands. Without such reform many of the accountability gains brokered by RAMSI will likely be lost. Although it may well be impossible for any external actors to influence change in the politics of Solomon Islands, it is important for Australia to recognise the limitations of reforms that are not driven by politicians themselves or that are perceived as inimical to the political and business culture of Solomon Islands.
In thinking about future Australian initiatives to improve the machinery of government in Pacific Island countries, a key lesson from RAMSI is that improving legal, oversight and investigative processes are not in themselves sufficient to tackle corruption. If Australia is serious about this issue it needs to find ways to encourage change in the political culture of these states. This is no easy task. The need to maintain good relations with its Pacific Island counterparts will constrain Australian governments from interfering in the politics of Pacific Island states. But creative and long-term efforts need to be made. Supporting politicians who are interested in reform is important because they often lack resources but this must be done in a way that does not compromise them or their ability to influence their peers. Providing or enabling expert legislative and practical advice on issues such as constitutional and electoral reform in Solomon Islands when requested by local institutions can also be valuable in environments where this kind of expertise is weak.
It concludes -
Even if Australia does not make another large-scale intervention in the Pacific Islands region, the need of Papua New Guinea and Pacific Island countries for external assistance for a variety of governance, economic and security challenges is unlikely to disappear. Many of the lessons of RAMSI are relevant in these cases. Future decisions to intervene in Australia’s neighbourhood should be based on clear assessments of the need, the real risk to regional security and Australia’s national interests. More work needs to be done to promote inter-departmental and interagency cooperation in Canberra. A response to a security crisis in the region should involve the cooperation of regional defence and police forces. Assistance provided in such missions in the economic and governance spheres is likely to be more effective in the long term if delivered through an alliance of aid partners. Such an alliance can deploy the most appropriate experts to work with local officials rather than set up parallel bureaucracies staffed by foreign officials. It is also important not to shy away from promoting real change at the political and not just the bureaucratic level. However, if there is one lesson that needs to be drawn from RAMSI it is the importance of knowing how much to spend and when to leave. Missions of this type need an exit strategy based on limited and defined criteria that should be agreed at the outset. Rigorous and honest assessments of performance and impact need to be made, as do judgements about when the costs of continuing a mission outweigh any possible benefits. In the case of RAMSI a massive and disproportionate investment accumulated over time largely because no one was prepared to make the difficult decision to end the mission. It would be easy to blame this on risk-averse officials. Ultimately, however, prime ministers and ministers need to assume this responsibility. In the case of RAMSI, $2.6 billion was a massive investment for a country where Australia’s interests are limited. A willingness by political leaders to seriously question what was being gained by persisting with the intervention might have helped prevent what was initially a good investment in regional stability and development from becoming a much more questionable one.