Community-based radio network for development and learning

Country Profile: Solomon Islands


561,200 (2013, World Bank)

Official language

English (spoken by between 1% and 2% of the population)

Other languages

Melanesian pidgin (the lingua franca for much of the country), and 120 local languages

Programme Overview

Programme TitleCommunity-based radio network for development and learning
Language of InstructionMelanesian pidgin
FundingThe programme is jointly funded by the following national and international donors: the Isabel Provincial Government; the Isabel Provincial Development Programme; the People First Network; the United Nations Development Programme (which supported the initial establishment of stations); the Commonwealth of Learning (which supplied capacity building for educational programming as part of the Healthy Communities project); and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (which supplied digital media equipment).
Programme PartnersIsabel Province Government, the Ministry of Community Affairs, the People First Network, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Commonwealth of Learning
Date of Inception2006

Country Context and Background

The Solomon Islands is a nation of half a million people scattered over 28,400 square kilometers of land in the southwest Pacific Ocean. The chain of islands spans 1,400 kilometers, from Bougainville in Papua New Guinea to the northwestern border of the Republic of Vanuatu. More than 90% of the country’s inhabitants are ethnic Melanesians, with the remainder of the population comprising Polynesians, Micronesians, Europeans and Chinese (UNESCO, 2000).

A former British protectorate, the Solomon Islands became an independent country in 1978 (WHO, 2012). Since achieving independence, however, it has struggled to develop and remains on the United Nations’ list of the world’s least developed countries. The vast majority of the population (85%) live in rural areas and survive through subsistence farming. More than half of all paid employment is concentrated in and around the capital, Honiara.

Between 1999 and 2002, life in the Solomon Islands was severely disrupted by a breakdown in law and order, which was only restored after the intervention of an international peacekeeping force. The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, a coalition of countries from the Pacific region led by Australia, in partnership with the Solomon Islands government, began to lay the foundations for long-term stability, security and prosperity in mid-2003. Political turmoil in the country has, however, continued to weaken the education system, resulting in alarmingly low literacy rates, poor educational quality, and falling school attendance. According to data collected by the Asia-South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education (ASPBAE), the islands remain some way from achieving the Education for All goals. While around 84.9% of islanders acknowledge the importance of literacy skills, only 17% of respondents to the ASPBAE educational experience survey considered themselves literate (ASPBAE, 2007). The problem goes beyond simply being able to read and write. Research shows that poor literacy impacts negatively on financial wellbeing, traps families in poverty, excludes people from decision-making, and reduces their ability to participate in politics and other activities that support the wellbeing of their families and communities (ABC Life Literacy Canada).

The population of the Solomon Islands grew by an average of 3.4% each year between 1970 and 1986, and continues to increase rapidly. This trend has, however, corresponded with growing disadvantage for some parts of the population, particularly young people. The net enrolment rate for secondary school in the islands is 48.4% (UIS, 2012), which means that more than half of all young people do not participate in secondary education. Employment opportunities for young people are also diminishing. It is estimated that of the 7,500 young people who enter the workforce each year, only one in six find paid employment (WHO, 2012). Acquiring the skills necessary for employment is a serious concern for many (ibid.), with poor literacy among the main causes of unemployment. It is obvious that development programmes need to improve the literacy skills of young people, and help them develop other skills useful in gaining employment.

Isabel Province

Covering more than 4,000 square kilometers, with vast natural resources, the Isabel Province is home to more than 26,000 people (Solomon Islands government data, 2009). The land is mostly rugged and mountainous. Only 2.3% is classed as suitable for agriculture (Solomon Islands government, 2009). Traditionally, land ownership is determined by matrilineal descent. English is the official administrative language, but it is spoken confidently only by the educated class. The rest of the population speaks Melanesian pidgin. There are also eight distinct local languages in Isabel: Gao, Bugotu, Cheke Holo, Zabana, Kokota, Zazao, Blablanga and Laghu. Literacy rates in Isabel are estimated by the provincial government using census-based self-declaration. A question on the census form asks people whether they can read and write a simple sentence in either English, pidgin, or a local language. This led the provincial government to report the literacy rate in Isabel to be approximately 90%, as shown in the graph below (ibid.). In contrast, ASPBAE estimates the national literacy rate to be around 17% (ASPBAE, 2007). Unlike the census-based method, which relies on self-declaration, ASPBAE uses direct, test-based assessment, which would appear more reliable (ASPBAE, 2007). Whatever the exact literacy rate, it is clear that the islands face a major challenge in tackling poor literacy among a large portion of its population.

Total youth literacy rate by sex and province, as reported by the national government. Source: Solomon Islands Government, 2009.

Total youth literacy rate by sex and province, as reported by the national government. Source: Solomon Islands Government, 2009.

National literacy breakdown by level, sex and age group. Literacy levels were measured using individual assessment. Source: ASPBAE, 2007

National literacy breakdown by level, sex and age group. Literacy levels were measured using individual assessment. Source: ASPBAE, 2007

Programme Overview

The development of community media in the Solomon Islands can be traced back to 2004. There was growing appreciation of the potential role of radio stations in supporting local governance and facilitating greater community participation and accountability. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Isabel Provincial Government (IPG) established eight low-power FM radio stations around the province as part of the Isabel Provincial Development Programme (IPDP). The aim was to support the growing role of governance institutions in provincial development planning and to improve communication between these institutions and the islanders. Poor infrastructure has been one of the main factors inhibiting effective two-way communication in the Solomon Islands. The problem is particularly acute in remote and mountainous areas such as Isabel. For that reason, the radio stations were set up in remote villages to allow greater sharing of information and the development of local content by host communities. The People First Network (PFnet) provided high-frequency radio email stations, co-located with the radio stations installed and managed by the IPDP. These facilities became known as community information centres. PFnet was involved in the operation of the email stations until the IPDP initiative ended in December 2007, after which the stations were operated by their local communities. The Commonwealth of Learning (COL), an inter-governmental organization which encourages the development and sharing of open and distance learning resources and expertise, began working with the IPG, as part of its Learning4Peace programme, in 2009. In 2010, the COL proposed building on this growing partnership by involving the IPG in its Healthy Communities programme. This led directly to the piloting in Isabel of the Community Learning Programme (CLP), which used broadcast media as a vehicle for non-formal learning on priority health issues. Four radio stations in Isabel participated, identifying priority health issues and developing a series of radio programmes to address them, with capacity building and support from the COL and their local partners, including the PFnet and Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT), lead partners in what became known as the Isabel Learning Network. The Healthy Communities programme aims to work with the provincial government and the radio stations to build the skills and knowledge necessary for the development of new programmes and content. This can include the development of basic literacy skills, by embedding this into the radio curriculum. The COL offers support to communities in developing their capabilities and strengthening their governance and sustainability, while providing the training the local stations need in order to manage their own programmes. Healthy Communities strives to create more opportunities for people to learn locally about community health and development. The COL’s focus is on capacity building. As the network progresses, the intention is to introduce more basic literacy elements to the curriculum so that local ownership can be strengthened.

Aims and Objectives

The network’s main aims included:

Programme Implementation

Teaching and Learning: Approaches and Methodologies

The Isabel Learning Network of radio stations was developed on the model of the Telecentre Network, which aims to empower poor and disadvantaged communities through basic information and communication technology services. Community-based telecentres are helping to connect Pacific island communities with one another, as well as with the wider world. The Pacific Online Telecentre Community was created to support the establishment of community telecentres in the Pacific. There are eight community FM radio stations in the network, including seven with co-located PFnet (HF) email stations. The stations were created to support better dissemination and sharing of information within the community. One of the stations, located at the provincial capital Buala, is the hub of the network, coordinating, advocating and negotiating on behalf of all the stations. Since 2011, efforts have been made to build a workable governance framework for the eight stations. This remains work in progress. The network still relies on a consultant as its key intermediary in coordinating among the stations. This is challenging work as most of the stations are based in remote areas with no stable grid power. The network was initially developed with the intention that it should be the focus of collaboration between multiple stakeholders, including government agencies, international non-governmental agencies and local intermediaries, as well as local community members. The eight stations, it was hoped, would work closely with the provincial government in gaining technical support, and with the COL in building their communication capacities and developing learning contents relevant to the communities involved. In reality, however, despite these good intentions, the results have been unsatisfactory. None of the eight radio stations is currently operational, essentially because of the challenge of maintaining the facilities and the often prohibitive cost of fixing broken equipment.

There are eight radio stations situated across Isabel. Unfortunately, none of the stations is operational at present.

There are eight radio stations situated across Isabel. Unfortunately, none of the stations is operational at present.

Programme Content and Teaching Material

Capacity building at community level is an ongoing struggle for the programme. The Isabel Learning Network has begun to identify potential themes that could be implemented into the the radio learning programme. Non-formal learning and the development of basic literacy skills have been highlighted as priorities. The network also aims to explore the links between basic literacy and other life skills, such as health, financial literacy, environmental protection, and the prevention of family violence, in the future.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

Ownership of the stations has historically been shared between communities and the provincial government. Village-based committees provide guidance, oversight and support to each community station. Network staff receive professional training from the Regional Media Centre and the Commonwealth of Learning, as well as from the Solomon Islands Development Trust. Local volunteers are trained to record, edit and broadcast digital audio. However, while the training has been successful, programme staff often find it difficult to transfer their skills into other contexts.

Training youth group members, 2009

Training youth group members, 2009

Lesson Learned and Challenges


The network encountered a number of challenges, some of which it is still attempting to resolve. These included:

Lessons Learned

The Isabel Learning Network proved that, despite the geographic constraints and the challenge posed by a fluctuating supply of electricity, community radio can educate, inform and empower communities. The network began with the intention of using ICT devices as a means of non-formal education. It became clear that this can only be fully realised with local buy-in from within the community. Some of the lessons that can be drawn from the programme are:



Ian Pringle
Education Specialist, Media
Commonwealth of Learning
1055 West Hastings Street, Suite 1200
Vancouver, BC V6E 2E9
Tel: +1 604 775 8235

Fax: +1 604 775 8210
Email: ipringle (at)