How to avoid leaving behind PNG’s 85%

19 July 2021
“We need to start thinking like the communities think. They do not perceive a conflict between their input and the delivery of essential services”


“People build their nation and transform their society by being active creators, observers and participants inside it” – Michael Dom, Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution, 17 July 2021

CAIRNS – That is a statement to agree with.

If we look at most cities and towns in Papua New Guinea, I believe we see ample evidence of participation within the boundaries of a particular vision of nation building.

Down the road is a community school, and the teachers exchange in pleasantries with parents at the supermarket on weekends.

Across town at the district hospital, mums with fractious babies wait in line outside Outpatients and a boy with a broken leg arrives on the back of his uncle’s ute to have it X-rayed and attended to.

Within some limits, nation building is alive and well here.

But my attention is captured by those who do not participate in this reality; the seven million or so people who look out upon a mountain vista and note the mist rising from the valley in the morning.

Or who wake to the lapping of water on some shoreline, a hundred kilometres by foot or dinghy from the nearest township.

These are the people described by Michael as subsistence farmers or hunter gathers in settings where resources are communally shared and political power gained and maintained by an assurance of mutual benefit for all.

I have sat on the shore of a remote bay at Lake Murray, the largest in PNG in the Middle Fly District of Western Province.

I listen to only the sound of birds and the distant laughter of children wafting over the dead calm, tea coloured water.

I wonder what may be their vision for the smart, wise, fair, healthy and happy society premeditated in PNG Vision 5050.

I have posed parts of that question to their elders gathered together in the afternoon shade on common ground.

I have asked for their thoughts on the collapsed classrooms and abandoned aid post which are in plain view.

I am genuinely curious to know if that reality of Vision 2050 is fine with them – or whether it is not.

In over 30 years I have yet to meet a community that said they were happy with those outcomes.

That is when you hear, “We have no government here.”

The unemployed teacher who showed me, his pride tinged with sadness, the last work done by his community’s elementary school children more than half a decade earlier.

The councillor who pointed out the freshly dug resting place of a teenage mother who had died the previous week in childbirth.

In 2006, I conducted a census of rubber block owners in a population of about 12,000 people scattered among a dozen or so communities around Lake Murray.

For the record I took a picture of every block holder standing on his or her block.

Generally they were young, fit individuals who had the energy to clear and plant two hectares of rubber.

Four years later I returned to follow up.

I was shocked by the number of those people who had died.

This time I took pictures of the brother, sister or child who had inherited the block.

In 2013, I took a maternal and child health team into the same area where among other things they surveyed the women and from their accounts estimated a maternal death rate in excess of 1,000 per 100,000 live births.

For comparison it is worth contemplating the World Banks figures for maternal death rates in Fiji (34), Vanuatu (72) or Australia (5).

I believe we are confronted by some stark choices in Papua New Guinea.

Continue along the present pathway defined by the status quo and nothing will change.

Or try something different to facilitate better outcomes for those who call themselves the ‘forgotten people’.

This is the environment where I believe the compact between the government and its people needs serious refocussing.

It is the environment where aid donors must call for proposals that directly address the realities in a sustainable way.

It is the environment where lending institutions need to start their own ‘nation building think tanks’ and consider products that recognise the multifaceted nature of community life: products designed to strengthen more than one sector at a time and link downstream inputs to desired outcomes.

I believe we need to start thinking like the communities think.

They do not perceive a conflict between their input and the delivery of essential services, especially when the alternative is no essential services at all.

They don’t see a conflict, for example, between an effort to increase fishing output may be coupled to improved education services.

I believe there must be a huge focus on tapping into the resourcefulness and energy of those people who wake in the mist of the valley or listening o the waves lapping at the shore.

There needs to be found a means that respects and leverages off the way of life of these people without polluting or destroying their land or water.

That pretty much eliminates extractive industries and big agriculture as partners of choice.

It acknowledges the bedrock importance of traditional land ownership and draws upon the multiple emerging and available technologies to empower women and communities to participate in mini economies linked to the provision of essential services.

This vision requires close consultation with the end users and the provision of the tools, technologies and support they need to enable them to become a major part of the solution.

The solution to problems that have been so long presumed to be the sole preserve of bureaucrats, when in fact, in large measure, they must lie in the hands of the end users.

This is not some pipe dream. There are examples all over the developing world where advances in photo-voltaics has met women’s banana-fibre sanitary pad manufacturing groups.

Where simple robust tools emerging from institutions in Tamil Nadu are transforming the lives of rural Indian communities and where user-friendly point of care diagnostics are preventing the spread of disease in rural settings.

The tools are there and getting better with every year. They just need to be applied in a community-centric, community-empowering way, supported by a vision that acknowledges the dignity and importance of preserving traditional values and people’s way of life on their own land.

I talk to people at community level who agree with this and discuss models that might be appropriate to a given setting.

The challenge is not convincing anyone to have a go.

The challenge is to find a single donor, one bank or one group, that is not paralysed by siloed thinking, blinkered views, stifling protocol, foreign policy objectives or the grand charade of the aid game.

If nation building is to look anything like the much-heralded PNG sustainable development goals, there will need to be a significant adjustment to incorporate the efforts of the 85% of people who are missing out.

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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