THE RED, BLACK and gold, with a touch of the bird of paradise flew for the first time on Independence Hill, Port Moresby on this day in 1975. I was 6 months old, and had no idea of what had just happened!
PNG celebrates 35 years of Nationhood today. Reflections of how we’ve fared as a nation are the order of discussion at this time of the year, so I pause and join the queue.
I ask a question shared by many in my generation – a new generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals and citizens, of this beautiful country, I call my island home.
Are we Independent, in the true sense of the word?
Exactly five years before 16 September 1975, 16 Papua New Guinean members of the then House of Assembly developed a vision for a new nation.
The Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC) tabled certain underlying principles as the basis for the development of the National Goals and Directive Principles in our Constitution.
These principles were Nation Building, Development of People, Participation and Decentralisation, Consultation and Consensus, Rights and Freedoms, and Quality of Leadership.
It was from these Principles that the vision of PNG was born. It was a vision to ensure integral human development, equality and participation, national sovereignty for this country and self reliance, wise use of our natural resources and all these through the use of Papua New Guinean ways with the aim of achieving a free and just society.
On the eve of self-government, the CPC declared: “Our Constitution should look towards the future and act as an accelerator in the process of development. It should be related to the national goals that we leaders of this country are enunciating. A clear definition of PNG’s most fundamental national goals, and a statement setting out the implications of their acceptance for the ways in which the Government seeks to achieve those goals, is of great importance to the welfare of our people and to the effectiveness of the Constitution in promoting it…”
It is interesting to note that the very first Goal of our Constitution was for integral human development, a process described as freeing oneself from every form of domination or oppression to have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others.
When I ponder on this goal, it seems obvious that the CPC intended people to be the focus of development of the nation. Have we freed ourselves from all forms of domination and discrimination? Have we adequately recognised and put in place statutory mechanisms to uphold the basic social rights of every citizen?
After 35 years of independence, PNG still faces significant development challenges. There is evidence of extreme hardship facing households. Our living standards are on the decline. The rural population remains at a disadvantage. There are insufficient employment opportunities accorded to our youth. There is worsening law and order and disturbing health issues reflected in the rise of HIV/AIDS.
There is no shortage of statistics. Our country is ranked 148 out of 175 countries on what’s known as the UN Human Development Index. Life expectancy for an average Papua New Guinean ranges between 50 and 60 in rural and urban areas respectively. About 30% of people over the age of 15 do not have any cash earning ability and between 33 and 40 infants die each day from diseases that could be prevented. We have managed to educate only half of our women over the age of 15. Half our population does not have access to clean drinking water and we battle with drastically high HIV/AIDS infection rates.
In light of these challenges, I have to ask whether we give our men and women equal opportunity to develop, participate and benefit from the development of PNG?
Has there been an equalisation of services across the country or are the benefits from project-rich provinces concentrated such that only a certain portion of the population benefit from the income generated?
Article 25 of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights promotes the right to participate in public affairs. A rights-based approach should be a means to achieve development. Are all citizens in this country able to equally participate in political, economic, social and religious activities?
Do we recognise and respect the rights of every citizen to have equal excess to legal processes and all services both governmental and non-governmental that each citizen requires fulfilling his or her needs and aspirations?
In consideration of any matter affecting citizens and their communities, is every citizen of this country able to participate in ensuring their voices are heard?
When our forefathers declared the our Third National Goal to be that of National Sovereignty and Self-Reliance, I am pretty sure they foresaw the difficulties that the cash economy would bring such as poverty, social disorientation, environmental degradation and disturbance of Papua New Guinean or Melanesian ways.
Our challenge has been to blend traditional PNG ways with modernity. It hasn’t been easy. Our land has been at the centre of controversy, with differing views of development. Should communal ownership be forgone in favor of individual title? What impact would that have on the communities that depend on their land for their livelihood?
One thing is for certain; we have failed to adopt a bottom-up, participatory planning approach, involving the very people whose interests we should be serving? Is there truly national sovereignty in planning and decision-making?
Self-Reliance is declared to be a means to an end in National Goal 3. Have we been self-reliant in pursuing, negotiating and developing our resource projects, or are we too dependent on foreign advice especially of multi-national corporations?
Our environmental sustainability record is one of the worst in the world despite our having the best laws in the world. With logging concessions in operation without a proper National Forest Inventory and National Forest Plan, we don’t even fall close to achieving the International Tropical Timber Organisation’s sustainable yield definitions and targets.
The focus of the CPC was that our natural resources be wisely used for present and future generations of this nation. How can we plan how much to take out and how much to save, when we don’t have proper stocktaking and planning?
What are our “Papua New Guinean ways”, and have we tried to achieve development primarily through the use of our own social political and economic institutions?
This is the ideal moment in history to apply the brakes. We should ask ourselves whether the Spirit of our Constitution and its Goals and Directive Principles, has indeed been our guardian angel. As a resource rich country, have we achieved true economic independence? Are our gold, copper and oil processed onshore? Is the cost of petroleum products in this country reflective of an oil-producing nation?
This country is so rich in resources that, in the words of one senior statesman, we are an “island of gold floating on a sea of oil”.
Our institutions of government, education, commerce, and religion, and most importantly our attitudes, need a complete re-orientation in order that they respond to the needs and aspirations of citizens of this country.
While we celebrate and feel a sense of pride today - an island nation, rich and diverse in cultures, with unique traditional systems - I call on every professional young man and woman to join me in asking these questions. As my daughter turns two today, I also ask these questions on behalf of her generation.
Martin Luther King Jr so famously stated “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…” Although, he was referring to the Emancipation Proclamation signed to end slavery, we also this day, in this nation, have an obligation to ourselves and our children and their children to put an end to a certain “form of slavery”.
We have to free ourselves from oppression and suppression! We have been slaves to ignorance, greed, self-centredness, cynicism, complacency, corruption and tyranny.
Lets STAND UP and acknowledge that TODAY we dream, that TODAY, this nation will rise up and give meaning to its National Goals and Directive Principles. That tomorrow, we the people of this land will take charge of our destiny. Only then, will there be true Independence!
Effrey Dademo is a lawyer and founder of PNG’s anti-corruption website Act Now. Effrey graduated from the University of Papua New Guinea in 1997 and was admitted to the Bar in 1998, later serving as a lawyer at the Environmental Law Centre. from 2000-05.
Photos: From Independence Day in Rabaul, 1975 [Barbara Short]