NO COUNTRY IN THE Pacific islands region offers the stark and deep contrasts that Papua New Guinea does. It is a country well known for its natural contrasts—from alluring coastlines through high, majestic mountains to scarcely explored lush forests.
Such natural contrasts are an extremely bankable attribute for any country and PNG has not even scratched the surface of its immense tourism potential. But the country is a long way off from capitalising on this potential.
And this is not the least because of the man-made contrasts that are beginning to undermine the recent impressive economic achievements of the country.
Unlike a country’s natural contrasts, which can greatly benefit its economy, man-made contrasts act as a brake to progress, bringing uncertainty on future growth prospects—and if left to drift, threatening the very fabric of society.
It is clear to anyone familiar with PNG that the fabulous economic growth of the past decade or so has lifted the country’s standing not only in the Pacific Islands region but also among industrial nations across the world. Its economy has grown at a pace faster than almost all the developing world.
In the past 15 years, thanks to its natural resources, almost every big global player in the energy, minerals and mining sector has had something to do with PNG, catapulting the country to its status as the region’s economic powerhouse.
Countries like Australia and New Zealand as well as several others in the Pacific Rim have been organising trade and investment missions into PNG over the past few years. PNG has proved to be a veritable magnet to big business.
Next month, another major business and industry event that will see Australian, New Zealand and Asian businesses descend on PNG looking for opportunities is being held in its capital, Port Moresby.
This side of the PNG success story would raise the spirits of any capitalist anywhere in the world, especially under the highly depressed economic circumstances that continue to plague the world since the global financial crisis that began five years ago.
Unfortunately for PNG though, there is a rather dark side that starkly contrasts with this success story. Going by the news reports of happenings throughout the country, it is quite clear that sooner rather than later, this dark side is bound to have a deleterious effect on the country’s hard won economic achievements.
While stories of systemic corruption have formed the leitmotif of the discourse in the country for some time now, rapidly growing social inequity—the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, a law and order situation that seems to be spiralling out of control and brutal, anachronistic sociocultural practices—are turning into a tinderbox that threaten to blow the country’s recent achievements to smithereens.
The lack of social equity and any mechanism to make it happen are the country’s biggest problem. The riches that the country has earned in the past 15 years have clearly not percolated down to any levels below the upper middle class.
Most Papua New Guineans remain poor, and in areas hard to access with modern transportation and with no communication infrastructure, are left out of the cash economy, living subsistence lives as they have for thousands of years.
The problem is that for thousands of years of such existence, they had few aspirations. Now they have many—particularly when they see a section of their kind moving up in life. That’s when frustration sets in and a need to hark back to old ways suddenly seems the way to go.
So when on front the country seems to be making great economic progress, those who are left out of that forward movement head for the opposite direction.
PNG’s leaders need to do everything they can to lift large numbers of people from the bottom rungs of society. Businesspeople setting up new ventures are already beginning to say that the much-touted fact that the country is a market of seven million that will soon grow to 10 million is but a myth.
They contend that with a majority of the people out of the cash economy, the real numbers are not much more than 1.5 million, at the most two million. This just shows the latent potential that exists in the country.
It will take several years of working with the right mix of socio-economically equitable policies driven by caring governments to bring more people into the cash economy meaningfully.
Present and future PNG governments have a long-haul ahead of them while catching up to fill yawning gaps in basic human development goals.
Primary healthcare, basic education, water and sanitation and food security need to be addressed for any meaningful progress to be achieved. Failing which, growing social inequity will drive a further wedge between the rich and poor and create greater social tensions—something that has plagued the country with disturbing regularity.
In repeated surveys relating to the country, law and order, lack of social equity and poor infrastructural facilities besides endemic corruption show up as major concerns for investors and those doing business or looking to do business in the country.
In the past couple of months, happenings in the country such as the witchcraft killings and the attack by the PNG armed forces on the nation’s top medical facility have been bizarre enough to undermine investor confidence in the country’s future as a stable society that is on the path to economic success, distributing the rich spoils of earnings from its mineral wealth through the various rungs of its complex society.
As well as the government, businesses big and small that are operating in the country have a stake in the country’s future.
While the government might be hamstrung by the lack of human capacity to implement policies to lift the majority of the people to realise their full economic potential, businesses could very well rise to the occasion and chip in—not just with funding but also know-how and helping build human capacity.
Incompetence on the part of the government and apathy on the part of businesses while being focused on short-term gains would undoubtedly leave the majority of the country’s population behind, creating even bigger gaps between the rich and the poor and an environment of greater uncertainty accentuated by violence, tribal warfare and even a mutinous law and order machinery—shades of all of which we have seen in the past two months.