Opening borders, closing minds?

Published on Mon, 27/06/22 | Perspectives

In a few days, on July 1st the borders of Solomon Islands will open, after a long period of restrictions (since March 2020). As a researcher based within the country, I have mixed emotions about it.

The day after Cyclone Harold in April 2020, I was on the campus of Solomon Islands National University looking at the damage to offices and equipment caused from the high waves. A fellow academic from the neighbouring office wandered over to where I stood on the sand and we stared out at the sea (now calm).

He told me he’d just been hired to head up a research project that was formerly to be done by an overseas academic. We both had invites to have one on one meetings with the overseas academic on a visit to Solomons, meetings both of us wondered whether were worthwhile, information would be extracted from us, but for whose benefit? Now, that visit had been cancelled due to closed borders, my friend had been hired to conduct the interviews and the analysis. “Maybe this situation will be good for us” he said, meaning local and locally based people. We laughed the sort of laugh you have after a day of tension during the disaster.

He was right, the closed border was good for us. With the combination of travel restrictions due to COVID19, the black lives matter and various decolonization movements becoming more prominent, it seemed like more researchers, aid and development agencies were talking a new language, words like “decolonizing”, and “localizing” flew about in meetings, as overseas professionals scrambled to recalculate work for “local”, “indigenous”, “locally based” and “area based”, rather than overseas staff.

After the initial economic shock of COVID19, all of my friends in the development and research sector had work, created by the closed border situation. I felt like a recruitment consultant, fielding anything from 3 to 10 requests a week for people to do jobs on the ground, recommending people and doing countless references. It took a little later, but other sectors came on board, like the media, with local rather than foreign journalists producing the stories on international news networks.

Local people through negotiation and necessity took on higher responsibilities than before, some also negotiated better pay and conditions, pointing directly or indirectly to the gender and racial biases that afflict aid, particularly in the labyrinth of donors paying the contracting agency paying the local consultant working with the local agency that hides ultimate responsibility for the cleaves in power that arise. “Charge big!” “negotiate!” “they’ll have so much underspent travel money this year, spend it” I told friends and they laughed but they also built up their allies to do just that. Networks of professionals arose, meetings were held to share problems, and associations of professionals that had been stale and self interested, became more vibrant and useful to their members.

Local professionals were visible, paid well, better networked and more vocal about issues such as funding models, research methods, hiring biases and other structural constraints they’d faced in the past. It was a good time to be a local linked internationally, but it was still a bad time to be a local.

The economy shrunk, joblessness and crime grew, shortages of food through reduced domestic and international trade was a concern, medical services were woefully ill prepared and everyone knew the State of Emergency could be used to stifle criticism if the powers that be so chose. Add to that natural disasters, periodic shutdowns of various services and businesses, and political dissent over the government’s approach to diplomatic and economic affairs and it was a time of worrying. We worried a lot, about the day to day matters like getting food, Panadol, antimalarial medications, power and internet cuts, and about the future, “where is the country heading?” being a common topic of conversation and its conclusion.

There is that saying about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, how the feminine dancer Ginger did everything Fred did while also being in heels and dancing backwards. I often feel like local researchers do the same working day as foreign professionals while the internet and power cuts out, fielding calls about funerals or family needing loans, monitoring the latest disaster warning and helping a friend navigate what to do about her corrupt boss.

I have stopped making of lists of issues that arise each day in person, on my phone and on my messenger and how random they are. Crisis management is not episodic but as regular as sipping tea, and just as regularly people joke about it, but have little time to dwell. The connectedness that is the joy of living in the islands is also a dull ache, especially in islands in poverty, conflict and political strife.

So, now, July 1st is coming. The “internationals” will be booking their trips to Solomon Islands, to do the backlog of work that is there to be done but will the dynamics have changed? They’ll have anecdotes and new phones and apps that make me laugh at my untechnological self, I am looking forward to seeing some of them. I think of George Soros and the need for open societies, Solomon Islands being closed has narrowed politics for sure, and can often fuel dictatorships, maybe open borders will open new ideas and opportunities as well. Don’t write them off, I think to myself about the internationals, neither locals or internationals have all the answers so there needs to be an exchange, and one day soon I too will travel. The visitors to Solomons will be friendly and generous, “we’ll have coffee”.

I got an email from a researcher, he’s coming to do interviews for a “case study”, he says it with great certainty and confidence. I react to myself: Cannot local researchers do a case study? What good is being a “case” in someone else’s study these days? Has nothing changed the past 2 years? I feel a sense of frustration rising, leave the email unanswered and close my computer.

I look out at the airport, all that uninhabitated space of runaway tarmac, surrounded by roadside markets and houses. The borders are opening, but will opportunities for locals shut down? And our minds, how are our minds? Are they wide enough to see that borders can be chosen, and in our choices we all birth these invisible lines, throbbing with power, lines that separate locality and mobility, in our professions and our lives.

Dr Anouk Ride

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