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‘We need you’: Solomon Islands’ support for US agency’s return revealed | Business and Economy

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A United States development aid agency whose return to the Solomon Islands has been delayed for years without explanation found “overwhelming support and enthusiasm” for its work, with the Pacific island nation’s leader telling officials “We need you”, a previously unreleased report shows.

The Peace Corps’ findings bring into focus the agency’s unexplained failure to resume operations in the archipelago nearly five years after it announced its return amid jockeying for influence between the US and China.

The “Solomon Islands Re-entry Assessment Report,” obtained by Al Jazeera via a freedom of information request, paints a picture of emphatic support for the agency resuming operations in the country after a two-decade absence, both among the local population and within the government.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is quoted in the report telling Peace Corps representatives, “We need you,” while Attorney-General John Muria is quoted as saying the agency “really had a lasting impact on people and communities in Solomon Islands”.

“On the ground, the assessment team was welcomed openly and enthusiastically by the Government of Solomon Islands at all levels from the Prime Minister to the provincial level,” the agency said in the report.

“The team enjoyed support in equal measure from other development partners, non-governmental organisations, international volunteer organisations, service providers and vendors, former Peace Corps staff, and community members who were taught by Peace Corps Volunteers.”

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Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has forged closer ties with China [cnsphoto via Reuters]

The Peace Corps, which withdrew from the Solomon Islands in 2000 amid ethnic violence, commissioned the report to examine the feasibility of resuming operations in the country after receiving a formal invitation from Honiara to return in February 2019.

In August, the assessment team submitted its report recommending the agency’s return after concluding the Solomon Islands offered an “enabling environment in which Volunteers can have meaningful work and serve safely with the necessary medical care and logistical support”.

“From the Prime Minister and national and provincial government ministries to service providers, local community members, and former Peace Corps staff, the team was warmly welcomed and strongly encouraged to bring Volunteers back to the ‘Hapi Isles,’” the report said.

“Peace Corps has had a lasting impact in the country and our absence is noticeable, particularly in the education sector.”

The Peace Corps publicly announced the re-establishment of its Solomon Islands programme that October, with the first volunteers scheduled to arrive in mid-2021.

The Solomon Islands, located about 2,000 kilometres northeast of Australia, is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific, with its population suffering from limited access to high-quality education and healthcare.

While the Solomon Islands closed its borders for more than two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency’s ongoing absence and the current status of its planned return have not been publicly explained.

Although the Peace Corps temporarily suspended operations in the Pacific during the pandemic, its volunteers have since returned to neighbouring countries including Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

Other comparable agencies have also resumed work in the Solomon Islands, including the Australian Volunteers, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Korea International Cooperation Agency, and New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad.

The US Congress has allocated just $500 to the Peace Corps’ work in the archipelago for the fiscal year of 2024, suggesting there is little prospect of its imminent return.

In December, Al Jazeera reported that opposition politicians in the Solomon Islands and US observers suspected that Sogavare’s government was deliberately stalling the agency’s return to curry favour with China, which has made major inroads in the archipelago in recent years.

Sogavare severed ties with Taiwan in 2019 to recognise China and signed cooperation agreements with Beijing on security and policing in 2022 and last year, prompting alarm in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

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Despite being one of the world’s smallest countries with a population of about 720,000 people, the Solomon Islands has become a focal point for the heated competition for influence between Washington and Beijing due to its strategic location in the Pacific.

The status of Honiara’s relations with Beijing is currently in the balance as Sogavare vies to form a government with opposition MPs after general elections this week that produced an inconclusive outcome.

Sogavare is seeking a fifth term in office, but he is being challenged by at least three opposition leaders, including Peter Kenilorea Jr, who has pledged to restore ties with Taipei.

The Peace Corps and the Solomon Islands government did not respond to requests for comment.

Catherine Ebert-Gray, who served as US ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu from 2016 to 2019, expressed hope the agency would be able to resume its work in the country.

“I am hopeful the next parliament and government will renew their interest in returning Peace Corps volunteers to rural villages to support the nation’s environmental, health and education plans,” Ebert-Gray told Al Jazeera.

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