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Australia to Solomon Islands: Reform, or No Aid - 2002-01-10

The Australian foreign minister has warned the troubled Solomon Islands that social and economic reform must happen before millions of dollars worth of aid can be donated. Years of ethnic fighting have almost torn the Pacific nation of 500,000 people apart.

The Australian foreign minister and his New Zealand counterpart delivered a blunt message to the new Solomon Islands government of Allan Kemakeza at the end of their two day visit to the capital, Honiara.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says his government is happy to help but only if the Kemakeza administration, elected last month, could show it was capable of helping itself.

The prime minister of the Solomons had asked for a $35 million aid package to improve health care, education and policing.

Mr. Downer wouldn't say just how much aid could eventually be offered if conditions are met. "I'm not putting a dollar figure on it; it's really looking at the ways we can help," he said. "We can help, for example, to strengthen and reinforce their security forces, their police force in particular. And we can do things to help with the development of economic policy, for example, perhaps lending them an economic policy adviser, perhaps assisting with evolution of policies, not just their fiscal policies but monetary policies as well."

The Solomon Islands need all the help they can get. The country owes more money than it generates and crime, unemployment and poverty are all on the rise.

The Australian government is to send advisors to Honiara to strengthen the Solomons police force, which is in chaos. Many of its 1,300 special constables were former militants who were co-opted into the force in order to keep them from causing unrest.

Violence has plagued the island nation and a peace deal signed last year between warring militias from Guadalcanal and migrants from the province of Malaita remains tenuous.

Last month's election, the first since an armed coup two years ago, and the subsequent appointment of Mr. Kemakeza as prime minister are widely seen by diplomats as one last chance for the Solomon Islands to reverse its economic and social breakdown.