Honiara, Solomon Islands – On the highway between the airport and Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital, a mammoth sports stadium rises from the ground in the tropical heat like an apparition. The new landmark is, by far, the largest building in the small bustling city that is home to just under 100,000 people.
The 10,000-seater stadium has been built for the Pacific Games, a regional multi-sport event held in a different Pacific Island country every four years. The games get under way in the Solomon Islands on November 19 and have become a symbol of national pride in the remote southwest Pacific Island nation.
“It is the biggest international event ever hosted in the country because it leaves a tangible and long-lasting legacy that will change the lives of people in the Solomon Islands,” Christian Nieng, executive director of the Pacific Games National Hosting Authority (NHA), told Al Jazeera in an interview. “Spectators here will now be sitting in good stadiums where they can watch games and where there are international rules and standards.”
Some residents are also optimistic about the event.
“It will bring in more revenue for the country through tourism and it will generate more cohesion and unity among Pacific Island countries, and lead to closer economic relations,” said Tony, a 55-year-old resident living close to the stadium.
The Solomon Islands, located northeast of Australia, is an archipelago of more than 900 islands with a total population of about 734,000 people. Despite being rich in natural resources, particularly forests and timber, most Solomon Islanders live in rural areas where access to infrastructure, basic services and economic opportunities is poor. Development was set back when a five-year civil conflict, known as the ‘Tensions’, erupted in 1998 and left the country’s economy and infrastructure in ruins.
Two decades later, Nieng believes the benefit of the games will be felt far beyond the competition. More than 3,000 local people will gain skills and experience as volunteers who will help with running the event, while more than 1,000 contractors, which employ local citizens, have been engaged to provide goods and services, such as construction and catering, he explained.
“We have also witnessed in the past sports being a uniting force. During the Tensions, football was organised and in the field people from different ethnic groups were playing peacefully. We may come from different islands and speak different languages, attend different churches, but in football, we are one. So, the Pacific Games is playing that role as well,” Nieng added.
Cost vs benefit
On the public minibus along the road which hugs Honiara’s palm tree-lined waterfront, the local radio station is playing a rallying call to remind passengers about the impending opening ceremony.
The event will attract a total of 5,000 athletes from 24 Pacific Island nations, including Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Fiji and Samoa, who will compete in 24 sports. At the Solomon Islands National Institute of Sport, 1,200 eager contenders have been training in the hope of making the cut for the national team.
Jovita Ambrose, a 21-year-old from Malaita Province, participated in the Pacific Games held in Samoa in 2019 and the past two world athletic championships. “I started athletics and running at the age of 17 years during school games. This is the first time the games is happening in the Solomon Islands, so people are very excited to see what will happen,” Ambrose said.
Within walking distance of the newly-built games city, which includes the stadium, swimming and tennis centres, is the Burns Creek informal settlement, a sprawling community of 7,000 people.
Here, people live on low-lying land close to the sea, their homes laid out along a network of unsealed streets with limited access to basic services, such as power and water.
Still, Peter Kosemu, the settlement’s chief, said there was a sense of anticipation in the community.
“It is the first of its kind here. People are wondering what it might bring because it is new,” Kosemu said. Some people in the community have been recruited as volunteers, but he said that beyond this, “many people here have found it difficult to access many of the [economic or employment] opportunities associated with the Games”.
Near the highway, some residents from the settlement earn money selling fruit, vegetables and betelnut, an addictive nut which induces adrenaline when chewed, at a streetside market. Here, 23-year-old Mercy and her friend, Jennifer, 42, said they were hoping to earn more income from visitors.
Ray, another vendor, is more concerned. The 52-year-old has a wife and five children to support and sells betelnut, which will be banned during the games. “This is hard for us. It will be hard to earn money in another way. I have a family to support, and now I will have to go and look for work,” he said.
The Solomon Islands is an underdeveloped country with large rural and youth populations. About 25 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line, according to the World Bank, and, even in the capital, residents suffer daily power and water cuts. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the population is aged under 34, with only an estimated 22 percent of the new entrants to the job market each year likely to secure formal employment.
Given the country’s immense development needs, the total cost of the event, at $250m, is a major expenditure.
Amid some concerns about the cost, the government insists existing budgets have not been affected and 80 percent of the games’ costs have been met by international donors and bilateral partners.
“We only received grants from all the countries that are supporting us. There is no loan commitment by the Solomon Islands government to leave behind for our youth or the citizens of this country to repay after the games,” the NHA executive director said.
China is the event’s biggest financial supporter, providing half the total funding, including the roughly $71m for construction of the stadium, plus other venues, such as the aquatic centre, tennis courts and hockey field.
China’s stake in the event follows Honiara’s diplomatic switch from Taiwan to China in 2019. Since then, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has signed numerous government-to-government agreements on issues from law enforcement to economic development.
It was a security pact, bolstering police and military cooperation with China, announced by Sogavare in April last year that saw the Solomon Islands become the focus of an increasingly taut geopolitical contest amid concerns about the country’s deepening relationship with China in the United States, Australia and even among other Pacific nations.
The US reopened its embassy in Honiara in January, and President Joe Biden has hosted two summits with Pacific Island leaders in Washington to accelerate offers of economic and development assistance.
Blake Johnson, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, told Al Jazeera that China’s funding of the Pacific Games was a sign of its persistence in growing government ties with the Solomon Islands, but “many development needs remain unanswered in the shadow of flashy new stadiums”.
“Both China and Solomon Islands governments are hoping the game’s infrastructure will help to demonstrate the benefits of Solomon Islands recognising the ‘One China’ policy, but many actual benefits are yet to be realised,” Johnson said.
Nieng and representatives of some other government ministries reject the suggestion that big power rivalry is a factor in the games, claiming that financial support for the event has been global.
While the US has not provided any direct assistance, Australia has stepped up with $11m to assist with athletes’ accommodation, staffing needs, venues and sports equipment.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Al Jazeera that Australia remains “Solomon Islands’ largest bilateral partner” and “Australia’s Pacific Games support will leave a lasting legacy and benefit future generations of Solomon Islanders, including with better school infrastructure and deeper institutional links with Australian sporting bodies.”
Funding for the games has also been provided by New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Korea, India and Indonesia.