Solomon Islands is a relatively young democracy, with elections often both an exciting and tense occasion. Particularly heated contests occasionally result in violence in the form of brawls and, in one case in 2014, a shooting. The electoral system itself is modelled off the U.K. and appears relatively democratic on the surface. But many Solomon Islanders have voiced criticism that candidates can win with fewer than half the votes, and the lack of a public role in electing the prime minister helped spark riots in 2006.

Voters in Solomon Islands wait outside a polling location during the 2019 elections. April 2, 2019. (Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr)
Voters in Solomon Islands wait outside a polling location during the 2019 elections. April 2, 2019. (Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr)

However, one factor in the electoral process that is not discussed nearly enough is the influence of money on voting behavior — particularly the use of Constituency Development Funds (CDFs). With very few regulations on how they are dispersed, their continued use has undermined democracy in Solomon Islands.

The Controversy Around Constituency Development Funds

CDFs are public development funds that have a long history in Solomon Islands. The current iteration of the practice started in the year 2000, during the country’s civil war. Amid the conflict, control of discretionary funding for constituencies was given directly to Members of Parliament (MPs) with the ostensive goal of supporting rural development initiatives that were in line with local priorities. As a result, MPs were given broad authority to allocate CDF money to individuals, income-generating projects or community projects in their districts.

However, there have been no laws that specifically govern how CDFs are created and spent. Tracking them is therefore difficult, making them open to abuse. Some MPs will spend them on individual handouts for their voters (such as solar panels or roofing irons), while other MPs will use it to provide key infrastructure such as schools and clinics. Some will even use CDF funds for direct personal enrichment.

Questions about corruption and the impact of CDF spending are a common sight in Solomon Islands media and on social media. Structurally, the CDF system raises concerns about the separation of powers within the country's governance structure. CDFs grant MPs executive powers related to budget implementation, potentially undermining the checks and balances that the separation of powers is meant to provide. For instance, disaster relief can be doled out by MPs based on their own personal criteria, rather than where they are most needed.

CDFs, Clientelism and the Decline in Government Services

Such practices also mean the public gets used to asking MPs for essential services rather than asking the government ministries that are supposed to provide them — leading to a form of clientelism.

The original rationale behind CDFs was to bypass bureaucratic red tape and channel funds directly to community-level projects. However, the division of CDFs among constituencies, rather than based on population size or particular needs, can be an inefficient way of impacting people’s lives. In fact, the CDFs have no impact on people’s livelihoods according to households surveyed in the 2019 census. An inordinate focus on CDFs, rather than service provision, perpetuates inequality, as indicated by Solomon Islands’ relatively high poverty rates compared to other countries in the Pacific.

Furthermore, this approach has actually weakened the government's already limited capacity to fund and manage services. MPs expect the bulk of the government’s budget to go to them in the form of CDFs — yet they are not made directly responsible for providing services such as health care. As a result, hospitals and clinics now face shortages of equipment, medicines and access to utilities.

To put in perspective just how much CDF spending — which is entirely discretionary — leads to unmet needs, look no further than the government’s youth budget. Youth make up the majority of Solomon Islands’ population, with 70 percent of the country under the age of 35. Yet, the entire national budget for youth development amounted to only 35 percent of the discretionary funding allocated to just one MP in 2018.

Relations Between Leaders and Constituents

Another problem with CDFs is the disconnect they create between MPs and their voters. The CDF system has shifted the focus away from the electoral system itself — which has generally functioned adequately. Instead, CDFs have taken center-stage in Solomon Island politics, as people expect to be given something from CDFs in exchange for voting for particular MPs.

After being elected by doling out CDF funding, most MPs rarely engage with their constituents and often only support those that they believe voted them into power. Constituents can then become frustrated, as voting out MPs in the next election offers the only option for change — but those elections can be years away, offering little immediate recourse.  

And while the elections themselves have functioned well, the voter registration process in Solomon Islands has become a source of some controversy. Voter registration takes place every four years, after which a list of registered voters will be publicly available to communities.

Some voters have alleged that residents from other constituencies have re-registered in their constituency based on expectations for CDF rewards. Several MPs have been implicated in efforts to move people into their own constituencies for the purpose of stacking votes in their favor — including some reports that MPs allegedly use discretionary funds to charter transport for out-of-constituency voters, furthering the criticism that unchecked CDF spending can undermine the democratic process.

Meanwhile, options for protest in Solomon Islands are also limited, as marches and rallies need pre-approval from the police or else they can be declared illegal. Additionally, there have been threats in recent years to close popular outlets for criticism, particularly on social media.

Another unique issue with regard to the CDF system in Solomon Islands concerns how direct foreign funding constitutes a portion of the country’s CDF funds. This can unduly influence decision-making and contribute to conflict — as seen in some episodes of rioting, such as in 2006 and 2021, when the role of foreign donors backing politicians was a key complaint in protests.

When Solomon Islands switched its recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019, Taiwan ended its funding for CDFs, which constituted 70 percent of Taiwan’s total assistance to Solomon Islands. However, in early 2023, China started the Rural Sustainable Development Program to provide funds to Solomon Island constituencies, raising concerns that a similar issue might arise. However, some recent reforms have made sure these Chinese funds are channeled through and overseen by the Ministry for Rural Development, rather through MPs alone, with mechanisms put in place to better track how the ministry spends the funds.

The Future of CDFs in Solomon Islands

While these reforms are cause for some optimism — and a sign of political momentum to address the issue — the influence of foreign money in development funds should be closely examined going forward.

Any further change to the CDF system will require MPs to have more transparent and consultative relationships with their voters, and for the government to provide better services to their people, rather than discretionary funding being sought for all basic needs.

That means leaders in Solomon Islands — both in the government and civil society — will need to work together to facilitate equitable fund distribution based on criteria such as need, transparency and accountability, along with potential alternatives to the CDF system altogether, such as using other mechanisms like provincial governments for the distribution of funds spent on local projects.

Only through these measures can Solomon Islands restore peace and stability to its elections, allowing the electoral process to reflect the true will of the people and the needs of the nation.

Georgina Kekea is an editor and co-owner of Tavuli News, a newly established news agency in Solomon Islands.

Anouk Ride is an adjunct senior fellow at the Solomon Islands National University and a fellow at Australian National University.

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