The Lowy Institute's report 'Australia's costly involvement in Solomon Islands: the lessons of RAMSI' launched today is the first to put a price tag on the whole operation.
It says RAMSI cost Australia $2.6 billion.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Jenny Hayward Jones, Director of the Myer Melanesia Program
HAYWARD-JONES: Costs built up largely because there was no clearly defined exit strategy at the beginning of the mission which could have enabled the mission to draw down after some early successes. And there was also a bit of a sense of mission drift as the mission took on more and more tasks the longer it stayed.
GARRETT: So what was that money spent on exactly?
HAYWARD-JONES: Well, interestingly, Jemima, before I started this research there was no breakdown of RAMSI expenditure across three main tasks, or what it calls 'pillars', which are law and justice, economic governance and the machinery of government. So the break down that I publish in my paper is something that I asked for from the government, and this in itself is problematic because it shows the Australian government was probably not doing the best job it could have of measuring its performance over the decade. But the more interesting issue about the actual expenditure is that the vast bulk of expenditure went on law and justice, which consumed just over $2.1 billion or 83 per cent of the total cost, and the Australian Federal Police alone spent $1.5 billion over the decade.
GARRETT: And in fact Australia paid the wages of the Pacific Island participants, too, didn't it?
HAYWARD-JONES: That is right. Australia paid for the defence forces of three countries and police representatives from all the Forum Island countries to participate, except New Zealand. New Zealand paid its own way.
GARRETT: You say that given Australia's interests in Solomon Islands and the rest of the Pacific that that price tag was massive and disproportionate. Why?
HAYWARD-JONES: Well, Australia's interests in Solomon Islands before the time of the conflict were really similar to that of its interests in Vanuatu or other small Pacific Island countries. And we saw a massive increase with RAMSI, with the average spend per year during the RAMSI decade being the equivalent of the total Australian aid expenditure in Solomon Islands in the decade prior to RAMSI, so the cost did really get out of control mainly because there was no clear objective or exit strategy at the beginning.
GARRETT: You say that the experience with RAMSI holds a number of lessons for the Abbott government in its new mission to align foreign affairs, aid and trade policy. What do you see as the priorities?
HAYWARD-JONES: Well, RAMSI has long been viewed as a very successful whole -of-government exercise, from Australia's point of view, and indeed, we also worked with regional partners so it was a whole of government exercise within Australia and then another sort of whole-of-region experience so this experience holds very valuable lessons. But the agencies themselves were not used to aligning their objectives and ways of operating at the beginning and they had to work hard at it and I think this is the important lesson that the Abbott government can draw from this, that when agencies do work hard at aligning what they do want to achieve and how to achieve it, they can achieve some very impressive things, as we saw in Solomon Islands over ten years.
GARRETT: Back in the early 2000s many people saw Australia as slow to step up to the plate with RAMSI because people in Solomon Islands had been calling for help for long before the region acted. To what extent should Australia be looking at aid and trade as preventative measures rather than waiting for the situation to deteriorate into a crisis?
HAYWARD-JONES: Well, I think that is what the Abbott government is intent on doing now. Ms Bishop, the Foreign Minister, has certainly talked about aligning aid, foreign and trade policies as a means of becoming a more effective actor, particularly in the Pacific Islands region so I think the lessons from Solomons are quite obvious that if you do work hard at seeing where the risks are, and working to alleviate those risks, as the government says, through mainly through economic development, then the results, certainly from Solomon Islands, when we saw greater opportunities for economic development there, the reasons for the conflict have drifted away.
GARRETT: You recommend that an exit strategy based on limited and defined criteria should be agreed at the outset of any future mission. How much shorter might the commitment to RAMSI have been, had this been done?
HAYWARD-JONES: Well, it is very difficult for planners at the outset of a large-scale mission like this to predict when exactly RAMSI might achieve its objectives, and of course, it wasn't just up to Australia. Australia was working with a number of regional partners and there was also a sizeable New Zealand contribution, as well as contributions from other Pacific Island countries, so difficult to predict but without an effective exit strategy, or just as importantly a means of measuring the impact and measuring performance, it is very hard to get to a point where you can , in fact, make those hard political decisions about when it is time to leave and whether we have achieved our objectives so really that is the critical lesson here, defining an exit strategy at the outset and determining a way of measuring performance and impact.
GARRETT: What do Pacific Island countries have to learn from their experiences with RAMSI?
HAYWARD-JONES: Well, certainly Pacific Island countries got enormous benefit from participating as members of the participating police force. They certainly shared a lot of their own expertise with Solomon Islands police force and benefited from sharing that experience with others. I think the general benefits of working across a regional objective and working to achieve development objectives in Solomon Islands itself have given other Pacific Island countries valuable lessons to take home and apply in their own countries.