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New voices, old questions and the way forward for PNG


DURING the final session of the Lowy Institute’s PNG New Voices conference, I was asked what the solutions are to Papua New Guinea’s development challenges.

This is not a new question. It is a question I, and many others, face in debates about development. The corollary to the question is – What are your alternatives?

There are people and organisations in PNG who think they have the answers. The Christians are the worst culprits. They are closely followed by the so called “developers/development partners” who seems to promise “development” in exchange for PNG’s sovereignty, land and resources.

Of course the Christians and developers blame their failures to provide answers on those who oppose them.

And so having learnt from the providers of bagarapment who disguise themselves as bringers of light and development, I chose not to follow the same path.

The Lowy Institute is a non-partisan Australian think-thank. The fact that this year Leonard Fong Roka and I were on the same discussion panel affirms the Lowy Institute’s neutral stance.

I felt that a different voice, indeed a New Voice, had to be heard regarding questions of development in PNG. This was in keeping with Lowy’s New Voices concept.

My response to the question of solutions is to suggest that it is a pathway littered with obstacles and challenges. Those in charge of the development of this nation must be responsive and adaptable to each scenario that pops up.

This is how nature response to stresses in the environment. Many of the stressors are known and, as such, natural mechanisms have been developed to maintain a balance in the ecosystem system.

Likewise, in developing PNG, many of the difficulties are known and there exist mechanisms for addressing them.

For instance, the Institute of National Affairs recently identified the key challenges of doing business in PNG. The Australian National University and the PNG National Research Institute have monitored budget expenditure and have identified the challenges at various budget forums.

These and various other organizations and individuals have done the research and identified inefficiencies.

So, basically, we know what the problems are and how they should be fixed. What is happening or not happening, though, is that as humans we have a tendency to upset the balance of things.

When police don’t keep crime in check, they upset the balance in society. When politicians don’t keep their spending in check, they upset the balance of economic equilibrium. When mining companies don’t manage their waste well, they upset the balance of social existence in the environment. When individuals don’t control their reproductive rates, they upset the balance of society and the environment.

When I articulate a response, I say there are no easy solutions on offer. Instead, taking my cue from nature, I see it as a process of balancing of the various forces that interact in the environment. This requires a constant investment of human values - values that ensure a much more equitable and sustainable future for Papua New Guinea.

These values are not foreign. They are home-grown and expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution of PNG and succinctly articulated in PNG’s Five National Goals and Directive Principles.

Any government policy or private activity that does not reflect the meaning, intention and spirit of PNG’s Five National Goals and Directive Principles (NGDPs), disrupts PNG’s national development agenda, destroys society and is harmful to the future of this nation.

That is why participants of the Tanim Graun television program held as part of the Lowy conference would have noticed my insistence on calling the so called Informal Economy the People’s Economy.

The People’s Economy, as I see it, embodies the spirit of PNG’s five NGDPs. Unlike other so called development programs that do not encapsulate all five goals, the People’s Economy expresses these goals as envisaged by the Constitutional Planning Committee in its report.

If you want to achieve the First NGDP -integral human development - look at the self-taught skills Papua New Guineans in the People’s Economy have, whether they be agricultural, business or technical skills.

Many people, like myself, may not have academic letters after their names but they are empowered people capable of participating in all aspects of this nation’s development.

If you want to achieve the Second NGDP - equality and participation - one only has to recognise that the so called informal economy is the People’s Economy by virtue of the fact that it is owned and control by the people (especially women).

This leads to the Third NGDP – national sovereignty and self-reliance. One cannot talk about economic sovereignty and self-reliance without acknowledging that Papua New Guineans participating in the People’s Economy are achieving just that.

The people’s economy is also a sustainable economy with a small environmental footprint. This reflects fully PNG’s Fourth NGDP, which talks about wise use of natural resources to ensure future generations also have access to the same resources.

The People’s Economy is also an expression of our Papua New Guinean Ways as articulated by the fifth NGDP.

The People’s Economy is not a panacea to PNG’s development challenges. But perhaps there are lessons and opportunities to engage with it and see how Papua New Guineans (many of who are so-called illiterate and uneducated) are able to stand on their own feet and face the difficult challenges of living in PNG.

I live in an amazing nation full of contradictions. There are many things I don’t know, but what I do know is that the people are at the heart of the problems and solutions of this nation’s development pathway.

Their collective actions or inactions will set the pace of progression or regression of PNG. The people must therefore be protected and encouraged to shape a better future for all.


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Michael Dom

I have not mentioned livestock production, which would be pushing my own agenda, but the examples are similar.

We import meat and milk products despite what we also produce locally.

We import livestock feed despite the feed materials available locally.

The absence of slaughter houses, local butchery, local dairy and feed supply depot are glaring.

There are other potential agro-products, e.g. starch, dried forage and fresh vegetables, and even the potential for innovative service business in agro-tourism.

If the discussion of development agenda is to address economic development some of the needs are clear, e.g. reinvestment, small business, technical agriculture training and jobs.

Moreover, discussion should be aimed at influencing policy.

What are the available policies and how do they need to be changed.

We should move from determining development narratives to providing innovative policy which provides the framework for economic growth. The focus, as you rightfully call for, should be on the people, their food security and sovereignty, income earning, small business and associated services.

Perhaps PNG has more to learn from New Zealand than Australia in developing agriculture food production.

New Zealand is a developed economy earning 65% of its GDP from agriculture.

The government borrows money from farmers banks.

Michael Dom

Many profound words Martyn, but I'm sorry, you've lost me; what is the 'people's economy'?

What does it encompass and what does it not encompass?

If the informal sector is the people's economy, which means paid employment for salaries and wages and taxable business ventures (i.e. the formal economy) is out of the picture. But is it?

I thought the People's economy fed off the formal economy.

Do you argue for a self-sustaining people's economy not dependent on external inputs and macroeconomic influences e.g. foreign exchange?

Then where does the Kina for growth come from?

The reason we take issue with the direction of national development is because there is less input, less financial and infrastructural reinvestment into the local economy to build it up than there should be, through royalties and dividends from extractive industries, minimal returns from cash crop production and little payment from exploitation of waterways and seas.

As I understand it the informal sector comprises the following;

(1) Agricultural food production - which is 85% of rural farmers
(2) Local food marketers - who may not be the farmers themselves
(2) Betel nut industry - which stretches in an expanding network starting from rural locations to urban centres (and wholesale to retail)
(3) Street vending & over-the-fence sales - these are the local roaming or situated sales persons, also including buai na smuk markets
(4) Family remittances and customary obligations - which is the money we send home to our family and kin; and
(5) Prostitution - which is also informal.

These sub-sectors gain from the formal economy.

The only differences between the informal and formal economy is the number of people involved and legal business contracts. The government does not mind taxing both and then going to town on the budget.

In fact I believe that government is our biggest development challenge and I don’t mean just the current jokers.

Any discussion of the PNG economy that does not mention agricultural food production as the key contributor to local communities and household livelihoods is doomed to wallow in the mire of theoretical debate.

The corollary is that any development agenda which does not consider agricultural food production is doomed to follow in the footsteps of previous failed development plans.

If we consider the so called People's economy without the major component, the system is simply not going to be economic, i.e. no growth from input, only circulation of currency.

Focusing on agricultural food production will help to identify development imperatives - roads, markets, financial structures, local business and other factors.

For example, improved health services into remote centres become more feasible if there is something of economic value coming out of the rural location, say coffee or tea. That is a fact and a necessity of the system where everybody wants to get paid.

The coffee industry has not yet reached its predicted production potential let alone met its mission objective of two million bags. And yet we hear tales of coffee rotting away in rural areas, men breaking their backs to carry bags to the highway and coffee buyers cheating growers out of their money.

The notion that we can build roads and airstrips without the regular usage and servicing that they require simply because our people are out there is an unsustainable pipe dream.

There are development expectations but there are also limits to which these expectations can be fulfilled.

For example, although the government may be able to build a simple airstrip it is unlikely to put Mission Aviation Fellowship on the payroll let alone pay for their fuel costs.

Agriculture food production is the most sustainable, equitable and downright growable option we have available to address development agenda.

Not to solve but to address development agenda.

We are missing the key to open the door to development. I believe that agriculture food production is that key.

Martyn Namorong

Hi Dr Ripa, I get the point you're making re Christian/Informal economy.

My argument is one of framing development narratives and what I see as overly simplistic narratives that give false hope such as that which Barbara Short commented upon.

Once again I refer to Phil's explanation as he gets the point I'm making.

Paulus Ripa

Martyn, My point is that we agree that the informal economy or “people’s economy" is very important and contributes more to national development (in more ways than purely economic measurements that economists use).

However I see no evidence whatsoever that Christianity is an impediment to this process. In presenting such a proposition you must present evidence to support such contentions.

There now is a large body of research on the informal economy and the constraints associated with them most coming from NRI (one for instance is on the NRI website by Y Wang on women’s participation and potential for business advancement) and none of them point to constraints by Christianity.

Many of these studies point out that the informal economy is huge but there are largely social and some economic impediments to them progressing to the next stage and in comparison to Asian countries PNG lacks that next level of progression.

Interestingly some of these research show that a large majority of people where resource projects are located have not benefited from those to support their engagement in the informal economic sector.

I would hope that you will continue to espouse what are important issues but back them with evidence rather than make spurious links with no objective evidence to support them.

Barbara Short

Thanks Martyn for your thoughts.

I'm in the middle of learning about what is going on in the Yangoru-Saussia electorate. I can see how the local member, Richard Maru wants to take the easy way out and just give his electorate to Wilmar to "develop" and look after the needs of his people. But will they? At what cost?

I can imagine he is a very busy man and like other members of parliament lives a busy life travelling the world, staying in posh hotels, eating and drinking fine meals and fine wines, with clean sheets and towels every night and hot and cold running water and flush toilets and the news on TV etc.Wow, he's living in "heaven". He would like his electorate to have all of that. Maybe if he gave it to Wilmar, that huge rich corporation worth billions, would organise it for them.

Let's face it, most of the politicians have "lost the plot".

I lived in PNG when work on how this nation should progress was carried out by the Founders of this nation. They consulted the people and articulated the will of the people in the Constitution.

The National Goals and Directive Principles sets the agenda for development in PNG. My students discussed it with Bernard Narakobi but we didn't really understand how vital this was for the future development of PNG. The Constitution has not been followed. the People's Economy has been neglected.

Martyn Namorong

Christians and their religion play an important role in framing the development discourse in PNG. From the religion comes narratives that can be harmful to the articulation of PNG's development story.

The Christian story about "development" or reaching heaven is that there is one way and a set of rules which if adhered to will lead one to heaven.

The story of PNG developing as a nation is also one of reaching a secular heaven (being a developed nation).

There is a tendency amongst those to subscribe to the idea of "one way to heaven" to project this into the discourse of how we as a nation should progress. Thus as a nation we've experiemented one "solution" after another without much success.

My argument is that rather than cook up ideas out of thin air let us look at work that has already been done to identify the impediments to development. Let us look at these impediments as stress factors that disrupt the equilibrium that is necessary for progress. As highlighted in my essay, I argue that we can draw comparison with how natural systems maintain such equilibrium and I gave examples of what is happening in PNG.

In human bodies for instance, maintaining homeostasis (equilibrium) is necessary for norm function and development.

My view therefore is not new in essence because it follows the progression of political thinking throughout the ages, (such as works by English philosophers Francis Bacon and John Locke). The early thinkers made arguments about what the natural order was in terms of establishment of government and political power.

We need to look for the most natural order of progression for PNG. The good news (pun intended) is that work on how this nation should progress was carried out by the Founders of this nation. They consulted the people and articulated the will of the people in the. Constitution. The National Goals and Directive Principles sets the agenda for development in PNG.

It is with this in mind that I talked about how the People's Economy aligns with PNG's development agenda.

Perhaps for the benefit of the readers, Keith should have mentioned that he had asked me to write my reflections on the Lowy Institute's PNG New Voices conference where I was invited to participate in two sessions.

It was during each of those sessions that I talked about the 'solution' problem and the informal or People's Economy. I have tried to connect the two in this discussion.

And I thank Martyn for doing that and triggering a great discussion. Leonard Roka's piece in today's Attitude was similarly commissioned - KJ

Barbara Short

I believe that as a Christian we can pray to God for help. But God will act in the way He sees fit, which is often not our way!

As I come to know so many PNG people through Facebook pages I am moved by the way so many of them share their Christian faith on these pages.

There are many wonderful people in PNG working in various fields it is just a pity there has been so much corruption going on.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I didn't say that Christians think that prayers will bring them wealth Paulus.

What I said was that Christians think they can fix PNG's problems by praying.

A big difference.

`Robin Lillicrapp

Over the door to our lounge, I have a sign that reads, "Prayer Changes Things."
I believe that to be true in my own life, and wish it to be so for others too.

Simplistic and effectual but stupid if regarded in any other light than than that of personal regeneration.

Subjective whim posing as real faith has done great damage to people and people groups the world over.

Dogma and liturgy often stand in the way of positive development whether National or personal.

Contemporary religion of the 21st century may often be found embedded in aspects of commerce and industry hopeful of the linkage between the body-politic, and economics yielding the peaceable fruits of righteousness that will usher in a Millennium of peace on earth goodwill to man. My view: only the returning Christ can accomplish that end.

If you take the Free Market economics of The Chicago School to be the way forward toward wealth creation, Naomi Klein does much to dispel that myth revealing the enslaving tendencies of that praxis to be the polar opposite of what is sought for in Martyn's People's Economy.

Further, I think the tendency of all of us complicit with the historic trend toward toward allowing our futures to be driven by globalism- itself a product of United Nations agendas et al- poses a problem scenario for PNGeans hankering after What Martyn rightly puts in a nationalistic sense.

On the one hand, the common people applaud the notion of land rights and preservation of culture etc while the other hand holds up grasping elites enamoured of the mantle of prestige and power drawn from the teats that supply the developmental formula for the growing bodies of peoples slated to be the peasantry of a New World Order.

We've seen already how that plays out in part by dumbing down educational expectations leading whole generations into conformist clones of OBE design. The consequent burden befalling the hapless nation is one requiring the healthy remedial influences of PNG attitude, and the Croc' Prize competition.

The creative juices so liberated by an emboldened generation of thinkers and writers fosters a rebirth, I think, of the kind of genuine resolve and purpose that forms the desirable body of developers of the "People's Economy."


Paulus Ripa

Martyn, I appreciate the arguments you present about the “people’s economy”. I take issue only with the fact that you label Christianity as being against development. I see no valid arguments in your article to substantiate this.

Phil mentions that some of them think prayers can answer their dream for wealth; I am not sure I agree with that as I am not sure I have seen too many of them.

The majority of Christians tend to be ordinary and good industrious people.

The argument about the people’s economy is nothing new, traditional economists tend to argue about the wealth of a nation in terms of figures like GDP and GNP which make no sense as it obscures the true distribution of wealth in the population.

As you know the two greatest denominators in the health and well being of people are maternal education and household income.

And household income is not reflected by the economy being bolstered by huge multinational companies (probably the opposite effect).

It has been shown that this can be improved by growth in the “people’s economy” both rural and urban. Microfinancing schemes have been seen to be the mechanism to improve these but governments must provide a conducive argument for this.

In my area all it needed was 17 years ago for the road to be sealed to Mt Hagen and the local economy took off like a rocket. With the recent connection of electricity I am seeing a huge change in the life of the people.

People in rural areas do not need handouts. They need the infrastructure, the roads and access to markets and the capital to create wealth for themselves.

The problem is with the government and the bureaucrats; not the Christian churches. Please do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Barbara Short

Some interesting comments here.

Lately I've seen involved with my Sepik wantoks, discussing development in the East Sepik, especially in the Yangoru-Saussia electorate, where the local member Richard Maru, the Minister for Trade Commerce and Industry, is keen to let Wilmar, a large Malaysian food company, come in to take over 100,000 hectares and 38 villages and turn it into the biggest Oil Palm plantation in the world.

Maru seems to be saying, "Forget about the People's Economy, let's impose some imported commercial economy and not ever consult the local people".

This so called "development" has not been explained to the people who live in these 38 villages. Maru seems to have been talked into this massive development without the chance to explain it to his electorate and without going through the correct local custom of consultation and getting the permission of the people to go ahead with it.

Today in The National he is talking about how PNG should improve its food production so it can become self-sufficient in food production.

If he really believed what he is saying today he would be working out ways to help the people's economies of Yangoru-Saussia improve their vegetable gardens, set up cattle and pig businesses and start to grow rice.

The government members have to start to represent the people who elected them. They should not think of their electorate as bush kanakas who can be tricked and made to do whatever the MP wants them to do.

It should be the other way around. The electorate should ask the MP for what they want - roads, schools, hospitals, help with agriculture and the MP should listen to them and consult with them.

The time has come for the MPs to stop thinking they are the clever ones who can just do whatever they want. The Grassroots have had enough!

Martyn Namorong

Hi Dr Ripa - My discussion on the People's Economy follows on from the paragraph that states:

"Any government policy or private activity that does not reflect the meaning, intention and spirit of PNG’s Five National Goals and Directive Principles (NGDPs), disrupts PNG’s national development agenda, destroys society and is harmful to the future of this nation."

That is why you will note that the discussion on the people's economy is framed within the NGDPs as an example of how the opportunities for progress should be decided upon.

Phil has articulated well my attack on Christianity and so called "Developers" who seem to always have answers that create problems.

Development is not as straightforward as some people people think and some of the "answers" seem to require undiscovered breakthroughs in human knowledge and innovation.

Those who simplistically think they have have all the truth or all the answers are misleading people.

Bernard Yegiora

Wo, very good analysis in your article, Martyn.

I like the tag People's Economy. The informal sector is a form of economic security for those without out a formal qualification.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think Martyn's references to the Christians and the Developers are plain, Paulus.

Many Christians believe that everything can be fixed by prayer and appealing to God. This is a naïve and simplistic view. It gets on my nerves too.

Thankfully, as you reiterate, some of them, especially your Catholic Church, also do many fine practical things. This is their major redeeming aspect.

The Developers, on the other hand, seem to have no redeeming features.

The Developers see PNG's salvation in tearing it apart and selling it. When everyone is rich they will all be able to move to Cairns and leave behind the smoking ruin and those too dumb to jump on the gravy train.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Knowing what the problems are and how to fix them are two elements in a tripartite. The other element is the resources, both financial and human, to enable the fixing to occur.

The finances are certainly there; so out of the whole mix it seems that the humans are the only thing holding up the process.

If you further define the term 'humans' you come up with two groups, the common people and the elite.

As you say, the common people seem to have their shit together, so that just leaves the elite as the weak point holding up the whole process.

It's not a matter of galvanizing the elites into action though. They are already hard at it - ripping off everyone and making their fortunes.

So what is required is to change the attitude of the elites.

I don't know how you do that short of putting them up against a wall and shooting them. The world seems to be currently run by rapacious and greedy elites.

Maybe someone can invent a pill that can be slipped into their champagne.

Paulus Ripa

Martyn - I am not sure that I am getting the drift on what you are talking about.

There are a lot of words talking in the language of “development paradigms” and “challenges” without actually telling me what the gist of your argument.

You defend the “people’s economy” and yet at the beginning of your obtuse essay you attack Christians and “development partners” but seem unable to link them.

Are you suggesting that Christians and development partners have been the obstruction to the development of “people’s economy”.

Whilst I cannot speak for other groups, I think the Christian churches need an apology. If you go to any of the most remote rural areas of PNG, who do you think runs a school or a health facility?

If you look anywhere where there is no safety net for those who are marginalised, who do you think provides a at least some semblance of a refuge for those who seem to have nowhere else to turn?

When the HIV epidemic was at its peak and many victims stigmatised, who provided care centres for them?

When there is injustice at any level, the churches provide a voice for those who cannot answer for themselves even if they do not have the teeth for it.

I have complained previously in this column about my church (the Catholic Church) and its recent stance on family planning.

Whilst that is an aspect I have not been happy about, it is insubstantial compared to the great work that has brought PNG to where it is now and that it continues to be the moral pillar on which our society will look for guidance.

It is easy for many of us who have the gift of the gab and can write in flowery words but it is sometimes hard to actually live what we preach.

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