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The rich & the poor in PNG – the gap keeps on growing

Poor-feed-the-richREILLY KANAMON

An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism

THE measure of Papua New Guinea’s development is not what the prime minister of the country says; it is what a villager in the remotest part of the country experiences every day in his living standard.

The villager rarely had a voice. For a start, the media never had time for him. As a commercial radio journalist for some time, my focus was on prominent people with credibility.

However I always felt guilty about whether what the prominent figure said truly reflected the poorest person in the village or whether it was just propaganda. I felt like I was giving an already rich person another handful of cash to tell the media what he does and believes.

In a similar vein, does Port Moresby reflect the scale of development taking place in Papua New Guinea? Many people who were born and live in the city would agree but a foreigner who sees a person walking days from remote Simbai would have a different opinion of the state of the country’s development.

I am saddened when I attend a government press conference and some politician boasts of new policies and great growth in PNG. My people on the atolls of Manus have been self-reliant for eons and still have to be despite the increasing challenges posed by climate change and a rising sea level.

For decades a government service has been represented by a water tank in each village, perhaps a school, maybe a health centre that often had empty shelves. There is no telecommunications service. A small maritime province like Manus is 15 years behind the rest of Papua New Guinea.

Most people in remote Papua New Guinea still use pit toilets and walk long distances to access basic services and average public servants can barely manage to rent a house in the squatter settlements of ATS and Baruni in Port Moresby.

There is a huge gap between the neglected population below and the well informed and educated top elite of Papua New Guinea. The elite defines development from its perspective and the less informed accept things because they have no power or voice.

I felt guilty if I need to write, “PNG is developing very fast”. I’d rather say the educated and well informed Papua New Guineans have taken advantage of the less educated to develop their own wealth and lifestyle.

Look at the gap between a top businessman and an old lady sitting by the fire waiting for her spine to run cold and for death to knock at her door.

To my mind, PNG is like a boat dragging its anchor; the anchor being the resource owners isolated from main town and cities.

Once they have a glimpse of Port Moresby, they realise they are many decades behind. When they try to cope, they up end up building squatter settlements instead.


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Phil Fitzpatrick

Well said Jack.

Your reply is worth an article on its own - 'Perceptions of Poverty'.

Barbara Short

Well said, Jack Klomes.

Lack of services is the main problem for the rural people. Those foreign bodies count PNG as poor based on the amount of money a person can live on per day, but the fact is, if you are living in the village, you can spend a couple of kina for your sugar and salt while having abundant food everyday!

By just manipulating global data, it completely changes how the world views PNG and how PNGians view themselves.

Fidelis Sukina

Sometimes it's the world view of others that puts us down, we seem to be looking like poor people because all these criteria are based on international standards of living.

But then again our own people fail to be patriotic about our people, if there are ways to improve the life in the village than make it happen, our people need good leadership that can lead them out of their woes.

I see some leaders go out of their way just to secure funding for projects like classrooms and health centers from aid agencies and other funding agencies.

We just hope we find more leaders and educated Papua New Guineans to help fix some issues that we face.

Jack Klomes

Poorest person in the village? So all rural dwellers in PNG are poor or living in poverty? Yeah that is right, that's based on the report by World Bank, IMF, UN and all those international organisations specialising in PNG.

I ask myself what is the definition of poverty? What criterion are these experts using to define poverty and poor. Its not like the rural dwellers are living at the mercy of the government and IMF or UN and will starve to death.

If someone is living on his own land, with food from his garden,with fresh water to drink and bath, fish from the sea and meat from the jungles is he still poor? If he earns a few bucks from selling his cocoa or coffee or surplus from his garden, is he still poor or living in poverty?

Are we contributing to this rural to urban drift by telling them that they are poor by living in the village? What is development anyway? Is it about being rich as in having millions in your account, driving fancy vehicles, living in glass houses? or is it about happiness and being content with life?

You see there is a difference between access to services and the idea of living in poverty in the PNG Context. Yes if you compare well off people in living in towns and rural dwellers there is a big difference in their living styles...but then this is the definition of life in two different world views (cultures). The definition of life, its priorities and wealth is different between a Westerner and a Melanesian.

I believe it is a lack of respect and too generalized to imply that rural dwellers are poor just because someone lives in the rural setting. We the elites in PNG are contributing to making this country poor by implying to our rural populations and ourselves that they are poor.

It is important for Papua New Guineans to get their facts right when dealing with issues relating to development, we should be more critical of things and be more aware of ourselves!

Most people will call my rantings "romantic" but I have lived in a village though I did not feel rich I was content, I attended a rural school with ol mangi lo ples, I sat in a class room with the naked earth for a floor, thatched sago leaves for a roof and with desks made of limbum (not sure of its English name but is what most coastal villages use for their floors).

And when it rains, oh when it rains we love it standing in the corner where the roof is not leaking and poking fun at our classmates and the teacher trying to move his books away from the leaking roofs while at the same time complaining about "het strong papa mamas".

And during the dry season we have fetch water from the wells to wet the floor (earth) so we don't choke from the dust. I never felt disadvantage or poor...I got an education which landed me in a University later. That is why I take it personally when people imply that rural dwellers are poor.

Again what is PNG's definition of development?

Poor nogat true, access to services yes, the government has a big outstanding job there. I am always mindful of what I tell my people as an educated person since the most scariest prison one could be in is in their head.

And oh yeah the community school that I attended, all the bush material classrooms are gone now, in its place we have nice permanent buildings with cement floor and nice desks, well thats development it took time though but its development nonetheless!

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