PAPUA NEW GUINEA is a country experiencing rapid transition, and the changes underway there have significant implications for both PNG and Australia.
PNG was the seventh fastest growing country in the world in 2011 – a year that sealed a decade of uninterrupted expansion. It is estimated to have grown by a further 9% this year. Further substantial growth is expected in 2013.
Industry has made the largest contribution to growth, boosted by the construction of the $16 billion liquefied natural gas project.
Demographics tell another important part of the story. The population is probably growing by as much as 3% each year, and has now reached something like 7 million – that makes PNG second only to Australia in the Pacific region, with double the population of New Zealand.
Currently 40% of Papua New Guineans are younger than 15. By 2030 the population will have grown to 10 million. It is projected to be approaching the current population of Australia by 2050.
This combination of economic and population growth is not without implications for regional dynamics.
PNG is set to take on more of a leadership role in the Pacific – we have already seen the government begin to exert a firm leadership role in encouraging Fiji back onto the democratic path, and PNG has for some years now been a strong troop contributor to RAMSI - the Regional Assistance Mission in Solomon Islands.
There are now PNG military observers with the UN in South Sudan and Darfur. PNG’s declared attitude to the asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island is that PNG should be making a contribution, as a serious regional player, to what is a serious regional problem.
The profound changes underway in PNG come with some serious challenges, putting strain on health and education services, and making the country more challenging to govern.
Administrative capacity has been struggling for years to keep up with rapid demographic change, which is seen most acutely in the growth in informal settlements on the edge of key centres such as Port Moresby and Lae – a major contributor to the law and order challenge in these centres.
The security situation, while generally misunderstood and often distorted, remains a significant impediment to the country’s development.
The health sector is still in very bad shape overall. At 733 deaths per 100,000 births, maternal mortality is the highest in the region. Preventable diseases remain widespread.