Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Journal Article Review of Hobbis, S. K., & Hobbis, G. (2021). Leadership in Absentia: Negotiating Distance in Centralized Solomon Islands.

Roxane de Waegh and Greg Watt

Hobbis and Hobbis (2021) investigate the social divergence of the governing elite of the Solomon Islands with the local villages which they purport to represent. It is a descriptive article that explores the perspectives and opinions of the rural people that the elite stand for, as well as a number of elites themselves. Covering much of the history of Solomon Island governance, and the problems associated with centralisation, the article reveals that the issue is more complex than a disconnection between leaders and their constituencies.

Leadership, Guidance, and VisionRoxane de Waegh

Through extensive ethnographic research, Hobbis and Hobbis (2021) uncovered the tensions that exist within urban leadership in Solomon Islands. Rural communities claim that national leaders have lost their connection to rural environments, rural interests, needs and values. Urban leaders, on the other hand, argue that these tensions have been exacerbated by processes of centralization, which required important individuals, such as themselves, to negotiate with foreign and other external actors, resulting in their absence from their rural homes. Hobbis and Hobbis (2021) present various excerpts and intriguing quotes from their open-ended interviews with both rural community members and urban national leaders. However, none of their respondents could suggest a solution to the challenges they identified and critiqued.

One possible reason for the lack of identifiable solutions is due to the absence of a coherent vision between the leaders and the communities. Do rural communities need a stronger local presence to assert justice, or do the rural communities need a spokesperson responsible for bringing development projects to rural areas? If the former is the desired outcome or attributes of a strong leader, then perhaps a return to the Area Councils and Local Courts is the solution – since such local government institutions are believed to bring stability to rural areas due to a leader’s commitment to conflict resolutions. However, if the latter is the preferred vision, then perhaps the resurgence of local government mechanisms is not the most effective solution since most decisions around development-aid have always been made in the urban capital of Honiara (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021).

If communities expect their national leaders to attract development projects to their rural area, they must also be aware of the risks involved when consolidating the position of chiefs within centralized state-based systems of government and governance. Research across Melanesia has shown that this centralization process is fraught with problems (Allen et al. 2013; Patterson, 2002; Tabani, 2019; White, 2007; White and Lindstrom, 1997), especially when development projects such as logging are concerned (Allen et al. 2013). In those contexts, chiefs struggle to maintain their legitimacy and are often seen as largely self-interested.

In conclusion, perhaps the best way to arrive to a solution for effective leadership is to ask the following questions:

  1. What should leadership embody?
  2. Who should leaders serve; development aid donors, such as international NGOs, or rural community residents?
  3. Where should the focus be placed; the local community in rural areas or the expatriate community in Honiara?
  4. How should leaders devolve their power; centrally through state-based governments or locally through moral economies?
  5. Why does a community need a leader; to promote local justice and solve local conflicts, or to support development projects and invite foreign investments?

These are simple questions that, if answered, could represent a clear imagery of nationhood. Unfortunately, the critical concept of nationhood was not discussed in this article. Yet it was introduced during our group discussion. How can a sovereign country, with over 900 islands, be unified under a successful leader if they do not even have a coherent vision of what the Solomon Islands should resemble? Effective leadership needs local guidance, and guidance is created by sharing a unified vision.

Different Places, Different Kastoms, Different Realities. – Greg Watt

Hobbis and Hobbis (2021) present an informative investigation about the consequences of uprooting men of power (Melanesia being a patriarchal society) from their deeply traditional societal structures and embed them into a pacific interpretation of modernity. The article highlights the tension that occurs in developing robust political systems in the Solomon Islands that “requires better national leaders who are familiar with, and committed to, rural environments because they actually live there, but also a desire and need to be in Honiara” (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 48). The latter becomes necessary because of the centralised system of governance that is a legacy of previous failed attempts of decentralisation (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 52). It is in Honiara, that both national and regional decisions are made, and importantly for politicians, funds are raised for ongoing pollical campaigns (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 55). However, the article assumes that the background context is understood by readers, and as a consequence, it does not fully represent the problems of developing governance structures. In fairness to the authors, that was not the stated aim of the article, which instead, sets out to “uncover everyday lifeworlds involving the Solomon Islands state and village-town relations” (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 50). The authors present a comprehensive array of detailed descriptions and examples without investigating the surrounding milieu that is the cause of many disconnections. It is contended that solutions to inappropriate and ill-considered behaviour cannot be addressed without tackling greater social disengagements. There exist ongoing tensions between traditional hierarchical structures and the inherited Westminster system of governance, between kastom and modernity, between rural and urban ways of living, and between collectivist actions and individualist freedoms. This review focuses on these latter aspects.

As a generalisation, Melanesian communities continue to manifest as small villages scattered over remote terrain and island typography. Traditional social structures existing for many generations still serve as staunch mechanisms of administration, judicial authority, work allocation, and collective decision making. Within kastom, a person’s place can seem to be pre-ordained, where others heavily influence status, ability to generate traditional wealth, and personal prospects.  Indeed, the village hierarchy of chiefs, of which there are many, can appear stifling to outsiders. While individual freedoms appear restricted (to the western gaze), decisions are more or less democratic, carried out at community meetings overseen by village chiefs. Traditional Melanesian society manifests itself in a more or less egalitarian fashion where the good of the village is paramount.

In stark contrast, urban Melanesia has developed from the earlier colonial system that separated metropolitan areas from their surrounding rural districts. European ways of doing and ways of living were cemented into administrative and jurisprudence procedures during the colonial era. Traditional ways and kastoms were prohibited, aided by hard-line Christian ministries who sought to capture the hearts and minds of the populace. Local people living in urban areas were separated not only from their lands but also from their collectivised way of life, traditional social system, and paganism that had its genesis in the natural world.  Independence came suddenly for Melanesian countries, 1975 for Papua New Guinea, 1978 for the Solomon Islands, and 1980 for Vanuatu, with little thought given to the societal schism between urban and rural regions. These newly independent countries had to quickly create national identities from multitudes of diverse and fiercely independent regions, islands and villages. Societal differences between rural and urban communities were interwoven into the embryonic notions surrounding the creation of Melanesian nationhood.

Freed from domestic travel restrictions imposed under colonial rule permitted outlying rural peoples to migrate to urban areas. Under the auspices of modernity, urban society became more individualist, sought monetary value over kastom, and less restrictive social norms could be chosen over traditional. For many, “irrespective of their responsibilities in town, can be seduced by these freedoms, even when they can hardly afford urban luxuries and waste money urgently needed for school fees or food” (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 56). As a result, cities have become socially chaotic, where difference, acceptable behaviour and conventions have become blurred. Some urbanites continue to live in the way of their ancestral lands, some a mix of traditional and modern lifestyles, while others have forsaken their past and live their lives in a way that they perceive as modern and free. In a sense, there are no boundaries. Instead, there is a societal spectrum with hard-line traditionalist perspectives at one extremity (orthodox), and care-free, hedonic and selfish attitudes at the other (libertarian). While, for some (readers), the latter term may appear to be used loosely, it is appropriate insomuch as it reflects a human state of being freed from servitude.   As yet, there seems to be little or no general melding of a traditional way of life with that of modernity; no fusing of ways to establish a sense of the modern Melanesian.

For most rural people moving to the cities, life is hard, jobs hard to find, and the promise of a better life elusive as ever. Here, rural poverty is exchanged for urban poverty. A life where food and shelter are assured, but social emancipation and freedoms are limited, are exchanged for the opposite. Urban life is often fraught with the difficulties of constantly finding food and shelter, but the ability to make personal life decisions is dominant. Despite this, survival for the majority rests with their ability to develop and work together in collective groups. Interestingly, despite ongoing hardship, few people migrating to urban centres ever return to their ancestral villages permanently.  

For those with the power to access money (elites), urban life is different to the majority. Indeed, possession of either (preferably both) removes the uncertainty and lack of security faced by most Melanesian urbanites.  Life is not only comfortable but excesses can be enjoyed with little oversight. The ability to think and behave outside of generally accepted norms without censure or consequence allows elites to test social boundaries not possible previously. The authors note that “while leaders in village settings can be held accountable for sexual transgressions, those in town cannot” (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 57). Further, consumption of luxurious urban living isolates elites from their ancestral homes, effectively desensitising them from their homeland regions’ needs, desires, and impacts. This is aptly described by Ann when she says, “Our politicians do not care about rural communities. They are elected by them, but really they just care about themselves and enjoy life in Honiara.” (Hobbis & Hobbis, 2021, p. 48).

The bad behaviour of elite leaders and politicians is merely one manifestation of the breakdown of traditional Melanesian social norms and the struggle to find, engage with and implement appropriate replacements. Outside observations frame these struggles as inept and degenerative. However, such discourse is arrogant and self-centred, making comparisons to their own histories, where societal norms evolved over hundreds of years, not a couple of generations. It is clear that there is a need for more Melanesian people to become positioned nearer to the centre of the societal spectrum, a melding of orthodoxy with libertarianism. In this fashion, the Westminster system of governance can become glocalised; kastom and modernity can merge into an updated Melanesian culture; the differences between rural and urban ways of living can diminish; and, collectivist responsibilities and individualist freedoms can negotiate acceptable pathways. Lasting solutions must be crafted from the inside. Melanesian issues must be handled and resolved in a Melanesian manner. Enabling strategies for developmental institutions and donor nations include the encouragement of decentralisation of governance to regional and rural areas, raising formal education standards for all Melanesian people, and a rotational system of parliamentary term where politicians are restricted in the number of terms in office.  It is noted that such measures are long term and their impacts may only be seen over several generations.    


Allen, M., Dinnen, S., Evans, D., & Monson, R. (2013). Justice delivered locally: Systems, challenges, and innovations in Solomon Islands.

Hobbis, S. K., & Hobbis, G. (2021). Leadership in Absentia: Negotiating Distance in Centralized Solomon Islands. Oceania, 91(1), 47-63.

Patterson, M. (2002). Leading lights in the ‘Mother of Darkness’: perspectives on leadership and value in North Ambrym, Vanuatu. Oceania, 73(2), 126-142.

Tabani, M. (2019). Tannese Chiefs, State Structures, and Global Connections in Vanuatu. The Contemporary Pacific, 31(1), 65-103.

White, G. (2007). Indigenous governance in Melanesia.

White, G. M., & Lindstrom, L. (1997). Chiefs today: traditional Pacific leadership and the postcolonial state. Stanford University Press Stanford, CA.


  • roxanedewaegh

    My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

  • gregwatttraveller

    Greg Watt is an advocate for authenticity in tourism and travel. Greg has previously lived in Papua New Guinea, has had an involvement with tourism in Vanuatu for the past thirteen years and presently has a close association with a community-based tourism project on Tanna Island (seven years). Greg is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology, and his Master’s thesis was titled “A Pro-Poor Tourism Case Study: Efate Island, Vanuatu” which looks at ways that poor Ni-Vanuatu can benefit through tourism. For a more detailed look at Greg’s involvement within development and tourism have a look at his blog articles which can be found at https://watt.nz.

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