WHY do Papua New Guineans accept inferior government services, equally poor treatment by the private sector, substandard goods in their stores and human food that is fed only to dogs and cats in other countries?
This question occurred to me when I read a comment by John Burton following my article on international statistics that simply stated what is blindingly obvious to everyone in Papua New Guinea.
In his comment John said that his students at Divine Word University in Madang generally thought that things weren’t too bad in PNG.
He was making the point, I think, that they are unaware or unappreciative of the dire state of affairs in PNG as reflected in those statistics.
I thought about his response for a while and decided there was probably more to it than just complacency and ignorance.
I think what has happened in Papua New Guinea is that, over a long period of time, people have been slowly and inexplicably conditioned to accept low standards and now don’t know anything better.
People expect, for instance, that if they go to a hospital the staff will often be unsympathetic, demand money before treatment, have run out of drugs and fail to carry out necessary procedures.
They have become conditioned to equipment like simple x-ray machines being broken, missing or lacking necessary accessories.
This is not a reflection on the many dedicated staff in the hospitals. Their gruff exteriors hide frustration at not being able to do their jobs properly because of chronic underfunding, poor and irregular wages and lack of essential materials and equipment.
Where else have you heard a surgeon at a major hospital launch a public appeal for bandages?
Two things occurred to me after I reached this conclusion about the inferior nature of goods and services in Papua New Guinea.
How did such a situation come about and why hadn’t it been fixed?
I think the cause has roots way back before independence.
Most expatriates who worked in PNG in those times will tell you the Australian administration was run on an extremely tight budget.
As kiaps, for instance, we ran government with hardly any funds and used equipment that dated back to World War II. We were poorly paid and accommodated - but nowhere near as badly as our Papua New Guinean counterparts.
Making do, second best, resourcefulness and imaginative innovation were the orders of the day. In many cases we did things that bordered on the illegal to get the job done.
We have been lauded for our achievements and ability to improvise and think outside the square but at the same time we were setting a precedent that seems to have continued into modern times in the form of the acceptance of the current make-do culture.
This might explain why Papua New Guineans accept the situation – they have never actually experienced anything better.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that post-independence governments in PNG have deliberately maintained this culture of the second rate.
Like Papua New Guineans who have had the privilege of going overseas, these politicians know there are better ways to do things so the best services and products are available to their people. Sometimes these better ways are not expensive. Yet they don’t seem to want to adopt them.
Is it to save money so they can rip more off for themselves and their cronies or is it some sort of grand plot in the Robert Mugabe tradition? He famously commented that the best way to control a country is to keep its people ignorant, poor and hungry.
I don’t know the answers but I do know that people generally have a remarkable resilience to make the best of a situation. And they do this until the situation seems to be normal. This is what people in PNG have done.
So they reckon, in the words of Divine Word University students, things aren’t really too bad.
I wonder when they and the rest of Papua New Guinea will wake up.