The white man's ghost
New Tasmanian Premier is a Goroka girl

The statistical nonsense coming out of PNG


2010 Human Development Report, The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, United Nations Development Program

PNG SCARCELY REPORTS a single statistical indicator accurately. This leads to nonsense in PNG’s entries in the Human Development Report (HDR) and a blank against many of the research topics ANU scholars pursue.

For PNG, the topic of food security is well-covered through national nutrition surveys, collaboration between researchers at the ANU, PNG’s National Agricultural Research Institute and elsewhere, and papers in the PNG Medical Journal.

Despite well-documented, localised food shortages, ‘daily calorie supply’, was reported for PNG at around 100% of requirements in HDRs in the 1990s. After 2000, ‘undernourished people as a % of total population’ took its place. This was reported at a belt-tightened 26-29% until 2004, then at a less serious value, and not at all from 2007.

Did Papua New Guineans feast through the 1990s only to starve in the 2000s? No, it is just any attention on the concept of ‘poverty’ in PNG is met with such populist outrage that it is awfully difficult to get empirical data from local reports into international ones.

Income poverty – living on less than $1.25 a day – was last reported in the HDR at 35.8% of the population (in 2009) and is now also missing from the current report…

PNG’s figures for life expectancy in the HDR are made up. The only calculations of life expectancy in PNG from nationally-collected data are those of the demographer Martin Bakker: 49.6 years and 54.2 years in the 1980 and 2000 censuses respectively. With the HIV-AIDS epidemic taking hold in PNG in the last decade, life expectancy might be going down again: we really have no idea.

The ‘decline’ of the maternal mortality ratio (deaths of women from pregnancy-related causes/100,000 live births) is another example of Dr Pangloss at work. The HDRs claim a remarkable fall in PNG, from 900 to 250 over the 20 years.

But with no death registration in PNG, where have the figures come from? They are also made up. Glen Mola of the Port Moresby General Hospital, PNG’s expert in these matters, currently accepts a figure of between 700 and 900, for an appalling lifetime risk for women of dying from pregnancy of 1 in 20. PNG has gone nowhere.

Who cares, or who should care, if a national government will not?

Donors. Their citizens may reasonably hope for some statistical evidence of their largesse, not idleness in the ministries that aid targets or, worse, a trowelling over of inconvenient discoveries. But even as ministers announced the aid priority for a statistical roadmap, the 2010 census was being undermined. The Census Office eventually conceded that the government had not allocated funds and has said it will try again next year.

Scholars. Many in the College of Asia and the Pacific, and their collaborators in national institutions in PNG, work hard in each of the HDR indicator areas. Other poor they have taken an interest in but who don’t feature in the 2010 HDR include refugees and victims of violence. Diana Glazebook could well be cross that the 2791 residents of the East Awin camps in the 2000 census – who haven’t gone anywhere – were reported as “0.0 thousands” in 2010. The contributors to Conflict and resource development in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea will shake their heads to see the missing indicators on ‘conventional arms transfers’, homicide, robbery and assault rates.

International community. Helen Clark says in the foreword this year ‘not all the trends are positive, as we know too well’. She’s not kidding. If PNG had the health profile of Fiji – by no means an HDR saint – something like 8000 excess deaths among under fives and 1000 excess deaths of mothers would be saved in PNG, and with Fiji’s homicide rate, perhaps another 1000 murder victims, each year. These are big numbers – 350,000 avoidable fatalities since Independence, more than the population of Vanuatu, or Oro and New Ireland Provinces combined. But apart from Sweden, the only country to go backwards on the Human Development Index in 2010 was international whipping boy Zimbabwe. For the rest of the backsliders, PNG included, face was saved by simply not reporting bad news.

I like the HDR a good deal, but the international community owes it to the poor, the victimised and the needless dead to do a better job when governments contrive, by omission or commission, to erase them from statistical view.

Source: ‘HDR: a nearest neighbour analysis’ by John Burton, Development Policy Newsletter, January 2011

John Burton is a Research Fellow, Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program, at the Crawford School, ANU.


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Lydia Kailap

Thank you, John Barton, for exposing the truth about PNG statistics. It is all nonsense.

If ever there were a thorough census conducted, the true results would be horrifying.

The truth has been covered up and ignored and any statistical data is grossly incomplete or just downright lies.

One only has to look at the official statistics in the area of education. The benchmark used to determine if a citizen is literate is whether they can sign their own name. If they can, they are considered literate.

It is purported that about 60% of school age children are attending school. That is nonsense; it would be lucky if the figure reached a mere 20%. In some remote areas that have been forgotten by the rest of the country there are no children at all attending school.

The rates for infant mortality and mothers dying during childbirth are a tragedy in urban areas. The death rate in rural areas is far worse and never reported. Most cases are a result of women not even having access to a midwife.

If AusAID could provide a midwife (or train one) in each rural area, those rates would drop dramatically. However; they spend their time and money collecting "advice" and do little to improve the prospects for rural women and children, who continue to die without being counted.

PNG has gone backwards in all of the mentioned areas, despite the grandiose claims of the government and certain aid agencies. They will not allow the truth to be exposed because it would show up their incompetence and complete failure to address these problems.

When will anyone ever listen to the truth and act on it?

I genuinely hope that Paul Oates' submission to AusAID will be followed. Maybe all PNG Attitude followers could put together a petition to give his submission further weight. Just a thought!

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