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The indictment of Lae: beyond the green zone


NASFUND is PNG’s national superannuation fund. It publishes a monthly newsletter on economic conditions and related matters

Lae_Air  LAE IS PNG’s second largest city and the industrial and manufacturing hub of the country. It has the largest port facilities and is the gateway to the highlands.

The Lae gateway and the highlands highway is the lifeline for over 50% of PNG’s population. But something is seriously wrong.

The Lae of today suffers from neglect and lack of decisive political leadership. Never have we witnessed such a steady decline of a city. The heartbeat of industry hums, private sector endures, but the decline of infrastructure underlies a serious tale of woe.

Political leaders prefer the relatively more lucrative and workable capital of Waigani and, when in Lae, take refuge in the green zone – two or three comfortable establishments where, in air-conditioned comfort, their minders can praise them for their initiatives and tell them what they want to hear over glasses of red wine and cold beer.

Outside the green zone, a totally different world emerges that should shake the conscience of any one who cares for the city. Sex workers, desperate to etch out a living, bob up and down between the containers that overflow the old landing strip near town.

If not there, they can be found under the verandah of Nasfund Haus, directly across from the green zone, where lucrative pickings can be had from well-heeled hotel guests.

HIV is rife, as it is along the highway through to the Western Highlands and beyond. A recent HIV test of workers at one facility found 3 of 15 infected.

Young schoolies, whose parents have little, skip classes to join the sex worker throng so they can buy basics like clothes, food and soap. Many do it just to ensure they can pay school fees. A sophisticated network through mobile phones coordinates the sex workers with clients, including truck drivers and maritime workers from the port.

Through mobile communication, client tastes can be ascertained - whether they use condoms or not, likes, dislikes, violent, kind, generous – as part of this highly visible trade.

Lae cannot absorb the inflow of the huge urban drift from the highlands, and settlements abound with all the associated ills. Crime -muggings to murder - is fuelled by home brew, grass and alcohol. The hospitals overflow from the rampage of disaffected, disengaged youths and communities who have worn the brunt of neglect for too long.

The road system is in collapse. Not a stretch of road in Lae can be found without potholes, some so deep as to make sections impassable. The two entrances to Lae look more like rural tracks.

And all this is compounded by the recent “gone missing” of millions allocated to repair part  of the road system.

The poor state of the roads means drivers are easy pickings for criminals, and ensures security companies continuing work, even if it is just to ensure that access to the airport remains unimpeded

Over the last few months security of supplies of water and power have become serious issues. Water was recently unavailable for three weeks and power remains intermittent. Once again it begs the question how this has been allowed to develop in what is PNG's manufacturing hub and gateway.

But what is both depressing and beggar’s belief is the cholera camp on the front lawns of Angau Hospital.

Forget the appalling condition of the hospital for a minute; forget the lack of facilities to treat what in the West would be basic matters; forget the run down wards; forget the desperation on the face of women trying to get treatment for breast and cervical cancer; forget the collapsing hospital infrastructure or the piles of surgical rubbish dumped on a makeshift bonfire to the left of the building.

Let’s just focus on the front lawns. A collection of makeshift latrines and tents, a few iron beds and untied black plastic which fails to hide the camp from roadside visibility and now flaps in the breeze.

Adults and children lying in tents getting treated for a disease that should not be in PNG and certainly not in our second largest city.

A government cheque for K3 million bounced and very little has occurred except through the assistance of AusAID and other donors.

The government has pledged K13 million to assist in the cholera outbreak, and to this day has not released anything. It is a national shame beyond comprehension.

In November, the national government announced its 2050 vision of a people happy and prosperous. One could not but support such an initiative. However, the long suffering people of Lae cannot wait 40 years to secure and share that vision. They need a plan for 2010.

A plan that delivers better roads, safer and secure water supplies, consistent electricity and major upgrades in the area of health and education. To continue to ignore Lae is a blight on the nation and corrosive to the collective soul.

Will someone please come forward?

Source: ‘Lae - A Story of Gross Neglect’, Editorial, Nasfund e-Newsletter, January 2010


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Jorge De Villas

The roads in Lae are the responsibility of our elected members in the Province and National Government. We should stop passing the buck.

The member for Lae is trying is his best maintain the roads. Where is the national government's share?

Perhaps as we come near the 2012 election the government will try its best to please the people of Morobe. However everyone knows the NA government is corrupt.

Peter Niesi

For the record: Hon Bart Philemon commissioned Torricelli Consultancy Ltd study in 1999 whose report revealed that ANNUALLY a minimum of K16 million was needed to maintain Lae roads including drainage, street lights, bus stop shelters and grass-cutting. Morobe Provincial Government despite receiving that report "throws in" up to K3 million annually despite making some K30 million through GST. Mr Philemon's position is that maintenance must be systematically done with adequate level of funding. Last September, he broke out of tradition and had his JDP&BPC purchase K2.9 million worth of heavy equipment for road maintenance which was handed over to Lae City Authority. Last we heard, the equipment was sitting around due to lack of fuel ...The district IS NOT responsible for roads. Public roads in PNG are designated national or provincial roads and responsibility comes with that ownership labelling.

Courtney Seeto

People of Lae city need to wake up and make a difference in their own communities. Teaching kids that they can make a life for themselves if they stay in school, teaching them better ways to use their education to help them get jobs! And the big chiefs running big buck companies need to maybe at least pilot training programs in high schools and universities for the young people or hand out scholarships as incentive for youth or SOMETHING!!
If we stand around and wait for the government to do something, then nothing's ever going to happen.
The voters aren't going to do anything about it because they feel they don't have any power with their votes, and the influencial people in communities DON'T vote because of indifference.
YES we need funds, but if we're not getting it from the government, then wherever the accessible money lies (maybe in companies that are able to carry out sponsorships and put their employees in housing commissions or whatever) need to dig deep and support the communities that are keeping their companies afloat.

Reginald Renagi

Fully agree with Robin. Yes we do need to talk and exchange good ideas among many different interests groups who read and enjoy the friendly interactions on PNG Attitude.

Thanks for the comments Robin and keep em coming...

Robin Mead

"A critical mass of likeminded people"

As Laurie, Reg and others agree, this is absolutely necessary for any beneficial change for the future. How? A myriad of different levers and buttons are possible, with much being done already, but the common ingredient has to be to continue to communicate effectively, to involve, to continue the exchange of ideas, good ones, bad ones, weird ones, even mauswara - the lot - in order to weigh up the best and develop real strategies which can stand the test of reality. A sort of community brainstorming, if you like.

To those who might worry that this can merely engender just an endless talkfest with no practical action, well yes, that is always a possibility, but try not to be too cynical. We are already in the past few months seeing the stirrings of ideas which can only lead to good in the future. The critical mass of constructive coming together to influence for good may not appear to be there yet; like Rome, Lae or any other city, it is not built in a day. It needs to be nurtured. But it can and surely will come, when more and more people, PNG people, Australian people, realise the value and importance of working together for common goals.

Reginald Renagi

I agree with you Laurie. In time PNG really needs to build up a sizeable smart thinking middle class who can counter a lot of the political humbug that is going on for some time. The political elites think they call the shots today.

For now that is, they have the power base with their greed, people's money, authority, influence and perks (and free AusAid money to bolster their pork-barreling activities) to buy favours with special interests; while throwing the bones, and left-over scraps to the grassroots and the lower class marginalised citizens who own all the natural resources that are being sold off and mismanaged.

Before long these people will (if things do not improve for them) take what they think is theirs with force. God help the pollies, and other so-called well to do people who they will perceive as having acquired their riches from ill-gotten gains; in cohorts with corrupt politicians.

The two LNG projects and other deals that are being signed in quick succession now will become a curse as the country moves closer to the edge of the cliff increasing its risk of being tipped over.

Laurie Meintjes

It would be nice to believe that a give-it-time-and-all-will-be-well approach to PNG's future is viable, but sharp reality is unravelling that sanguine sentiment almost quicker than the eye can follow. This latest before-and-after view of another corner of PNG (Lae) holds no promise that things will improve any time soon, if ever. You can add many other urban cankers and rural blight to this sorry mix. It is unfortunate, it is tragic. And the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil of the political power base is only adding to the tragedy. Solutions? Who the hell knows? Perhaps, in one of those twists that fate indulges in, time will be the final arbiter in all of this. But what time will ultimately deliver is probably not worth contemplating. Unless...! Unless a whole lot of things, but central to any favourable and longlasting change are the people of PNG themselves. Somehow, somewhere, a critical mass of likeminded people needs to become established and then to permeate PNG society so that its influence for good can counter and overturn all those forces and vested interests that for too long have looked after themselves to the detriment of the rest of the country. Here's hoping!

Phil Fitzpatrick

Roll on 2012. Whoever wins that election is going to be saddled with expectations on a Barack Obama scale.

Reginald Renagi

Well what can be done? Lots. Lae's future development solely rests with a very committed Morobean leadership and its people.

Firstly, Lae city authorities must draw up a good future development plan and factor it into the present Medium Term Development Strategy (MTDS),as well as into the Vision 2050 (PNG's national strategic plan).

Secondly, allocate a realistic road development and maintenance operating budget to keep Lae roads and general infrastructure into tip-top condition all year around. City authorities and its business community must both supplement the national government's Morobe Province budget to ensure a consistent and reliable maintenance program is progressed annually.

Lae has turned out this way because for the past twenty years, successive Morobe politicians (both national, provincial and LLG) have allowed their personal differences get in the way of Lae's development. This has made it impossible to work as a team in fixing Lae and Morobe Province's many problems over the years.

The present Morobe Governor, Luther Wenge and Member for Lae City and Deputy Opposition Leader, Bart Philemon have both failed to work well as a team in fixing Lae's "pot-holed roads". Both men keeps blaming each other and the business community of not fixing the city roads. As long as they keep doing that, the residents of Lae and Morobe will continue to suffer.

This problem will hopefully go away when two new MPs emerge after the 2012 national elections as the people have already given up on these two politicians.

Reginald Renagi

I feel the same way as Phil about the once beautiful garden city of PNG: Lae. Lae was my favourite town in the late 1960s as I used to visit my sister living there during school holidays. It was then an attractive and clean town. It's not the same today for many reasons already well commented on by others, and in the latest NASFUND newsletter.

I agree with Phil about the decision to shift the airport to Nadzab. Whether it was a huge mistake is debatable. One end of the old Lae airport in town (or city now) runs off into the sea (beachfront view) southwards into the panaramic view of the great Huon Gulf. It looked quiet spectacular whether you were taking off or landing (depends on the wind direction at the time).

The airport was moved for many reasons (more space for businesses activities in town, safety reasons in the event of any serious air incidents later, etc). The move unfortunately has not really improved business much due to the daily inconvenience of traveling long distances over pot-holed roads to the city and back, to fly out of the province and safety can be guaranteed along the Markham valley highway after dark and so on.

Like many others, I do feel quiet saddened by this story as Lae has the potential to be the premier PNG city in future.

Phil Toynton

My Father worked in Lae in the late 1960's. I remember it as friendly, tropical and a happy place.
I went to Lae again in 1974 employed by SP brewery.
Again a beautiful, tropical paradise, with potential to be a great city.
As mentioned shifting the airport to Nadzab was a HUGE mistake.
I am truly saddened by your story.
What can be done ? I have no idea.

Robin Mead

Re. your comment about the photo of Lae and the airport, the attached link shows two rather more current pictures:

The closure of the Lae City Airport was one of the crazier decisions, which I and many others think has not helped the city or its people. By closing it in favour of Nadzab, air transport for Lae has become much more problematic, costly, particularly for primary producers, inconvenient, time-consuming and ultimately dangerous as the road journey to Nadzab is now something of an endurance test.

As if the poor people of Lae didn't have enough to deal with..

Robin Hodgson

Re the photo of Lae airport. Keith, I have to tell you that is 30 years out of date...and you should say that. There is no airport there any more and back in the late 1990s a road was established cutting right through the middle of it with blocks being sought after for building development. It would be interesting to have an updated photo. Otherwise your blog is most interesting.

Thanks Robin. Hope the new photo is more representative of Lae today.

Reginald Renagi

NASFUND is the PNG's largest super fund for its private sector workers. The newsletter story of Lae is a very depressing story that can be replicated for most urban areas in the country. It makes me very embarrassed that my country after some 35 years after Independence is still a struggling third world country but on the developing country's listing.

Yes, time will fix things in PNG but whether for better or worse still remains very much to be seen. Australian aid money for development effort must be fairly well spread out in key priority areas to make some sort of a big difference at the end of each budget year.

While it may seem to be too hard now, it's all a matter of priory that the PNG government must train and discipline itself to be good at doing.

Phil Fitzpatrick

This is an astonishing article, particularly considering where it appears. It makes the media reports about the provincial governor's latest preoccupations sound even more obscene. It also casts doubts on John Fowke's opinion that time will fix things in PNG. The situation in Lae is outrageous and needs to be fixed now. I think Luther Menge was instrumental in scuttling the use of Australian police in PNG. Clearly the police force needs beefing up, de-corrupting and resourced to help with situations like these. Come on AusAid, take the money away from the Coffey consultants and pour it into law and order.

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