When 35-year-old Benjamin* heard he’d won a reforestation grant from the Solomon Islands government, it came as a relief. A market vendor in a small rural community, he often struggled to earn enough money to support his family. With the grant, he would be able to supplement his income, while helping to protect the environment he had grown up in.
Told to collect his money from officials in the provincial capital, Benjamin bought a ticket for the boat journey to town. Yet on arrival, he was redirected to the development officer in the country’s capital, Honiara – a long, expensive journey away. The boat fare alone cost more than 500 Solomon Islander Dollars (US$68), which Benjamin could barely afford. Without money for accommodation in the city, he was forced to stay in a relative’s overcrowded home. After his arduous journey, he was told that the funds weren’t ready, and to return two weeks later. When he did, he heard the same story. This happened repeatedly for three months.
Desperate, he went to the Ministry of Forestry to enquire about the grants, only to be told that the funds had already been collected. According to the official, they had been given to the community development officer for distribution more than three months earlier.
When Benjamin was directed by the ministry to our legal advice centre for help, we called the development officer directly. “Cases like this are sadly common here, but they’re rarely reported because people are intimidated by formal offices, or deterred by the costs of complaining,” says Shepherd Lapo, who made the call on Benjamin’s behalf.
“When we explained to the development officer that the misappropriation of funds was corruption, and was an offence, he immediately denied stealing the reforestation grants, claiming he was working on disbursing them,” says Shepherd. “Within 15 minutes of ending the call, our phone rang. It was Benjamin, calling to say that the officer had asked him to collect his grant. In the days that followed, all of the other successful applicants received their money.”
In collaboration with the government, we are planning trainings to help community development offices carry out their work with integrity and honesty. At the same time, we are using mobile workshops to reach out to the 80 per cent of the population who live in remote areas. People like Benjamin, who has since been back into the office to thank those who helped him get the funding he deserved. “He was very happy to have finally received the money,” says Shepherd “and now he’s telling others in his community about the help and support we can offer them.”
*Name has been changed