Who/what explains the world’s biggest developmental under-achievement? A visit to Papua New Guinea

November 25, 2014 3 By Duncan Green

So did you miss me? (I know, holes, heads etc) After a week on the road and away from the blog, it’s time to try and make sense of last week’s trip to Papua New Guinea (my first visit). I was there at the invitation of  the Development Leadership Program, which is funding my How Change Happens book.

Population of 7 million papuanwgpeople (or anything up to 10 million – no-one trusts the figures), strewn across a country the size of France. A country, but not yet a nation. PNG achieved independence in 1975 by one of those strokes of the decolonizing pen, but 848 languages are listed for the country. Due to a combination of culture and terrain (lots of valleys separated by impassable mountains – think Darwin’s finches), people identify with clan and village, but seldom anything beyond. According to a wonderful 2007 overview by Bruce Harris (Harris PNG Nation in Waiting 2007):

‘To the extent that we can speak of “tribes” (or ethnic/cultural groups) such tribes generally consist of a series of residential groups related by kinship.  Each of these groups is fairly independent and generally amounts to no more than several villages or a village and a group of associated hamlets.  The groups do not aggregate into any larger political entity – social interaction, trust and interdependence is intense within each group, but drops off precipitously between groups.’

Harris describes the result as a ‘putative state’ – it’s not ‘fragile’ or ‘failing’, because it hasn’t even been built yet.

For anyone still needing to be convinced that when it comes to development, ‘it’s the politics stupid’, I recommend PNG. De Gaulle once asked of France ‘How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?’ Try a thousand languages. In many ways PNG represents the last, toughest test of state building, and it’s not going well. Over a decade of continuous high growth has raised per capita GDP by 150%, yet PNG will not achieve a single one of the MDGs, a distinction it shares only with Zimbabwe and North Korea (the MDGs that is, not the growth). Which in terms of turning growth into development, makes it a strong candidate for the biggest underachiever in the world.

Prior to independence PNG was one of Australia’s few colonies, and the Aussies still plough in US$9m a week in aid, including some signficant governance programmes, including interesting work on civil society and sub-national government.

In his paper, Harris argues that PNG politics has been messed up by the way decolonisation overlaid the Westminster system of First Past the Post politics onto a traditional structure of local ‘Big Men’, creating a cocktail of corruption and political paralysis. MPs in particular dominate the system, with huge and highly discretionary power over how public funds are spent.

unfinished Chinese built stadium + Michael Samore, WewakIn the coastal city of Wewak (North coast, see map), we saw a rather too-perfect example of the waste created by bad politics: a derelict half completed sports stadium, (see pic). A Chinese contractor signed the deal, got it half done by the 2012 elections when it was opened with a vote-winning fanfare. But since then nothing has happened, and the grass is growing over the track.

Development is paralysed by incompetent or corrupt  administration (‘wrong priorities’ is the local euphemism of choice), while litigation over land disputes throws sand in the wheels – the Prime Minister is currently the subject of 22 separate legal proceedings concerning his office. Chuck in a big process of decentralization handing even more power to MPs (more on that tomorrow) and huge natural resource reserves of gold, gas, copper etc, and you have a recipe for political disaster, which is pretty much what PNG is.

What to do? How can outsiders like the Australian Government or Oxfam, which has a large PNG programme  encourage the birth of this last, most difficult nation? Harris argues that there is no alternative to encouraging ‘translocalism’, a shift in people’s identity from identification only with clan and village, to higher tiers of government and eventually, the nation.

So in our numerous conversations with villagers, local officials, all the way up to local MP Joseph Sungi (more on him tomorrow), I asked where the drivers of translocalism might come from. The answers were intriguing:

Firstly, it is already happening to some extent – road building and the mobile phone masts that dot the forests are eroding the isolation of the villages. Migration (largely internal – not much of a PNG Diaspora compared to other Pacific islands) and intermarriage is increasing.

Otherwise, anyone seeking to promote translocalism is going to have to think laterally. Sport seems to be one of the strongest unifiers, in particular Rugby League – a passion imported from Australia. Papua New Guineans are devout church goers to a range of denominations – lots of possibilities of faith coalitions promoting national identity, not least as churches continue to deliver much of the health and education. Scholarships to study abroad seem to have a big impact in forging local identity. In the words of one village woman ‘When I’m in your country, I say I’m from PNG. When I’m here, I’m from my village’.

Another point of light is the women’s movement, which seems to be able to bridge divides in a way reminiscent of Northern Ireland during the troubles. More on how to work with these little islands of translocalism in another blog.

I wanted to end on a positive note, because despite the politics, PNG is an amazing place – spectacular vistas of

Chance encounter with a hunter who appeared to help when we got a flat tyre

Chance encounter with a hunter who appeared to help when we got a flat tyre

forests, extraordinarily rich cultures, welcoming people etc etc. On the social side, despite predictions of catastrophe, the country has contained HIV. One thing I really loved is the mongrel language that unites the 800 odd language groups – pidgin. Check out some choice words, which are phonetically written, so pronounce them to see where they come from:

  • Meri – woman (from the Virgin Mary of the Catholic missionaries, shouts of ‘white meri!’ regularly greeted Oxfam country director Louise Ewington)
  • Rausim – take it away (from the German)
  • A fantastic series of references to the belly, Bel hard (angry); bel kol (it’s all cool); bel hevi (sad); bel isi (happy) and Wan Bel (we all agree – we are all of one belly)
  • And some definite signs of Aussie influence, in the tradition of Sir Les Patterson: Ars nuting (naked) and bugarup (broken).

Tomorrow, the importance of leadership and roads, and a field trip to the middle of nowhere.

And if you want more on PNG, everyone raves about Jo Chandler’s writing for The Age.