An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
THE O’NEILL-Dion government shifted the focus of implementing the 2013 budget to the districts. The year was declared unequivocally as the “Year of Implementation.” Donors and international development agencies were to swing behind this policy.
But there were genuine fears among many sectors of the community on the lack of capacity in the districts. This was further compounded by the state of infrastructure such as roads and bridges and the often skeleton staff without adequate resource support who were unable to dispense their duties as required.
Debate raged in the newspapers, on social media and in commentaries on radio and television about how we were shaping up to redistribute the wealth generated from PNG’s resources for the majority of people in rural areas.
In 2014, this debate on service delivery to the districts must continue. The responses to a suggestion to appoint 89 Australian advisors in the districts were varied. Commentators used several arguments to support or oppose it.
Many dwelled on neo-colonialism and PNG’s sovereignty. Others argued that there is capacity in the districts which only requires adequate resource support and political will.
Critics should wake up to the fact that Australians are not interested in recolonising our country or trampling on our sovereignty. Those using these arguments to resist the efforts to seriously address the problems should realise that it is PNG and not Australia which needs to salvage the situation in the districts.
Some commentators welcomed the idea based on the premise that it will improve transparency and accountability in the management and disbursements of funds. This may be so for as long as the advisors are around, but once they leave the system needs to continue to function rigorously and effectively serve the population.
Australian Advisors if they come will assist in building capacity, add value to the work of planning, budgeting, and ensure that funds are used judiciously towards development ends. However, the specific roles that these advisors may play are not clear.
The demise of the districts and all the services connected with them is an internal problem for PNG to address. Leadership at both the political and bureaucratic level is required to ensure the best outcomes are achieved for any investment in this regard. Australian assistance can only be sought if it is requested by the PNG government and only when such assistance is deemed to be relevant.
Although it appeared that the proposal to have Australian Advisors in the districts was shelved, the spotlight it shed on the districts was worth the effort.
The lack of leadership at the political level over the years has been the key factor in determining whether districts are doing well or not.
Generally districts in the country are at their various levels of development. Not two districts are alike or have developed on the same path. And although the administrative structure for the districts are the same, the level of development and staff strength and capacity, the infrastructure and other assets on the ground differ markedly from one to another.
Natural resources endowments, accessibility to markets and services for very remote areas, good leadership and effective governance systems, and so forth are inherent factors that have a bearing on the level of development in all districts of PNG.
This means that some districts will require longer term assistance with the development of offices, vehicles and staff with favourable support services available, while others will require less support.
There are genuine issues related to skills and performances of District staff that provincial governments and district administration need to address. Some of the skills needed for rural development are: planning and budgeting, community mobilisation at the LLG and ward levels, reporting, researching and establishing baseline data for the purposes of planning, and the review and evaluation of planned activities and programs against achievements. Many personnel in the districts may require training and up-skilling in these areas to effectively dispense their responsibilities.
Implementing the rural-focused budget for 2013 required improvements/maintenance to basic infrastructure for some districts, while for others it will mean re-skilling staff and realigning pressing development needs at the Wards and LLG levels with national development priorities. There are signs that a few provinces are beginning to head in that direction. But more quality work needs to be done.
Some of the inherent conditions such as difficult terrain, conflicts and lack of community cohesion, unequal distribution of development grants and benefits, and lack of leadership and so forth also contribute to doing development work in rural areas an ever pressing challenge.
In many rural districts, we have left behind whole generations of people who cannot even effectively participate in the business of “nation building” because they are already disadvantaged in many respects.
Ironically it is these group and their generations who will hold back the progress of the country towards social development and economic prosperity. Evidently we have already begun importing some of the problems related to rural development into the urban centres and cities on the back of rural-urban drifts!
The verdict after many years is this: We have progressively allowed our rural areas to deteriorate to levels in which it will require sustained efforts over a long period of time to turn things around.
Our responses to some of the appalling conditions in the districts must be gradual, and yet consistent in the long term. Our politicians and bureaucrats including planners must have a long term view of addressing the lack of development in the districts. Therefore, having qualified advisors and consultants to start looking at improving service delivery is only a part of the picture.
We need to articulate the values and principles that underpin why we do what we do, such as the universal principles of human dignity, the value of life, and so forth need to guide what we do in the name of development. Among these we must embrace the universal value of Truth.
There is a need to work towards Minimum Standards for service delivery and development in the districts. For a given district, what are essential minimum standards in terms of staff, infrastructure and administrative support to maintain and deliver the core services to the people? What should constitute the minimum standards? And who should be involved in framing these standards?
In many ways these minimum standards are already provided for in the Organic Law on Provincial and Local Level governments.
The Office of Rural Development and the Department of National Planning can be supported to take the leading roles in ensuring that these minimum standards are agreed upon among all main government departments, line agencies and the provinces. These standards can be used as a guide by each district in developing and maintaining the core services and priority areas. Districts that lag behind in these standards can be considered as being in a situation of crisis and swiftly assisted.
Adopting minimum standards should enhance the optimal use of limited resources for many districts.
Scheduled monitoring and evaluation/audits must be done by independent auditors and evaluators, if this can be allowed. This needs to be encouraged to ensure that funds are used on priority areas while benefits and positive impacts can be properly accounted for.
The Auditor General’s Office can also be factored in for such monitoring and review/auditing work. Whether Australian advisors or national consultants can be contracted to carry out some of these responsibilities is left to critical judgement. This can enhance the work of the Office of Rural Development in monitoring and reporting.
In the final analysis, if we are serious as a country to progress with the times, we must first win the battle with the crisis in rural development at the districts and LLG levels. It is not rocket science, and can be done with a little bit of right attitude in the new year.
Priorities need to be worked out. Where it is more proper to do maintenance on existing infrastructures than erect new infrastructure, it must be done. Where it will benefit the majority of the population to improve schools and hospitals, and infrastructure, it must be done rather than vehicles or machinery.
John K Kamasua heads the Social Work Strand under the School of Humanities at UPNG and teaches courses related to social and community development planning, social planning and community development planning, with extensive experiences in rural development, development planning and management. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the University.