A lot can happen in seven years. And in Solomon Islands, the past seven years have certainly seen a lot of change.
In 2004, the last time Teisi Puguva visited Wagina, her village in southern Choiseul, RAMSI had just been deployed in July the previous year, and Solomon Islanders were working hard to re-establish law and order in the nation. Thousands of the guns were being collected and destroyed but basic government services were only just beginning to be re-established.
For a veteran revenue officer like Ms Pugava, her working days back then couldn’t have been more different. At the time, very few businesses were paying tax. In fact, many simply chose to ignore the country’s tax laws because they believed the money would end up in the wrong hands.
“Before and during the tensions, we found it very hard to visit taxpayers,” says Ms Pugava. “When we travelled to visit businesses around the country, there were not many people who would agree to pay their tax, because they did not trust that the money would go where it was supposed to.”
She says as someone who was required to travel the country to enforce the country’s tax laws, it was a tough time.
“We were trying to make people aware of the tax system and their obligations, but it was very difficult.”
It was in 2004 that RAMSI began deploying civilian advisors to work with the Ministry of Finance including the Inland Revenue Division (IRD), to help stabilise government finances, and improve revenue collection. The effort has paid off and staff in Inland Revenue have used the opportunity to improve their division’s performance.
For IRD, the contrast between then and now are enormous and it is not just the outstanding increases in revenue the country is currently experiencing – in 2004 Solomon Islands revenue stood at $283m, last year it reached a record $1.1billion: a quadruple increase over just seven years . But according to Ms Pugava staff morale and the opportunities for training have really helped to energise the Ministry’s Inland Revenue Division into one of the leading teams in the Solomon Islands public service.
“We are now a lot better at implementing and upholding the income tax laws,” she said. “When RAMSI came, they helped us interpret and understand the taxes, and have given us a lot of advice about it.
“We’ve had a lot of training; it has changed us all a lot,” she added. “I just want to make the most of their help, and take their support while we have the opportunity.”
And it was this message – of encouraging people to make the most of opportunities currently in front of Solomon Islands – that was one of the key points Ms Pugava made to members of her village when she returned home this week to Wagina Island, in southern Choiseul, as part of an Outreach visit by representatives of the Solomon Islands Government and RAMSI.
Ms Pugava was joined by a team of 12 others; civilians and police from Government, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and RAMSI, for a series of Wakabaot TokToks (half-day village meetings designed to provide an opportunity for plenty of open discussion about key issues currently affecting Solomon Islands) in four different villages: Nukumaroro, Mboemboe, Taora and Arariki.
Each meeting reflected the knowledge, ideas and concerns of the people of Choiseul. Villagers in Mboemboe village, on the southern coast of Choiseul Island, highlighted that they now felt safe to travel by boat throughout the country, but still expressed concern that despite the improvements in the work of the RSIPF, the community was still experiencing some problems with law and order. In the nearby community of Taoro, while people expressed their appreciation for the country’s improved stability they felt that more needed to be done about corruption and misuse of funds.
However it was in the meetings on Wagina Island, in the Arariki and Nukumaroro communities, that Ms Pugava was clearly something of a ‘local hero’. Delivering her presentation in the Gilbertese to many friends, old schoolmates and members of her family, she took enormous pride in proclaiming that while she was from Wagina, she was also a tax collector and she was there, standing in front of hundreds of people, representing the Ministry of Finance.
“I was very proud,” she said after the meeting. “To be there in front of my schoolmates, my family; it was a great honour. Normally we aren’t allowed to stand up in front of the older men in a maneaba [a traditional Gilbertese meeting house], which has strict rules.”
“Often, when I tell people I am a tax collector, they say they’re going to take me and throw me on the rocks,” she said with a laugh. “But coming back home to Wagina, I think that some of my people are proud that I’m a Gilbertese, that I got a job given to me by the Government, and when they see me coming as part of a visit from the Government, the police and RAMSI, they see that I’ve got responsibility and they’re proud of me.”
Ms Pugava says returning to her home as part of the Outreach visit, and having the opportunity to see members of her family that she has not seen for many years, in particular, her elderly mother, was an opportunity she will never forget.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been home,” she said. “My family has grown up a lot. There are a lot more pikininis in our family now, I don’t even know all their names!”
“Coming home, the first thing I did was go and give my Mum a hug. It was very special time, seeing her and my family again.”