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PNG class warfare: the predatory elite & its ‘willing’ prey

MARTYN NAMORONG | Namorong Report

People on a street in Port MoresbyI USED to have the opinion that Papua New Guinea’s middle class offered a solution to the growing gulf between the haves and have nots in PNG.

Lately that view has been changing. Despite the activism of some, and many Facebook conversations, only a handful of people meet together and take action on issues. Are we seeing the rise of the predatory elite and people/prey who do not seem to mind being exploited?

There seem to be inequality of ideas and aspirations. The inequality of wealth and access to education and decision making bodies also create rather contrasting levels of aspiration.

Recently, whilst on holiday in Madang, I met a friend who grew up in a “block” in Lae. The “blocks” are settlements quite different from the Kaugere-type settlements in Port Moresby in that they are literally made up of holders of blocks of land.

In Lae, the block holders live along what is referred to as the “Miles” region that stretches out of Lae along the Highlands Highway.

On Christmas Eve my friend and I were discussing the existence of class in PNG. As the conversation about upper, middle, working and lower classes rolled on, I noticed we had totally different definitions.

My world view was framed within Marxist political economy whilst my friend held an original “block” definition of class. So I paused the conversation and asked him to explain the class system of the block.

According to my friend, there are four broad groups of people: village people, settlement people, block people and street people.

The village people are the traditional inhabitants of Lae. The settlement people live in squalid conditions in makeshift homes and are generally poor. The block people are settlers who hold a block of land. And finally the street people are those who live in residential areas of Lae with proper street names.

The people on the block are categorised into three classes: high, middle and low.

A high class person on the block is usually a landlord with assets such as a trade store or rental properties. A middle class person is someone who has a job whether as bank teller, teacher or shop assistant. A low class person is someone who is unemployed or self-employed.

There seems to be a unique block economy that is highly specialised. For example, a grass cutter walks round the block looking for work whilst a firewood seller collects wood and dry brush to sell to other people on the block.

There are women who specialise in selling peanuts, ice blocks and offal from the butchery (cow intestines are a delicacy at the block).

With such a social construct, getting a job as a shop assistant or some other low wage job, is a leap of class from low to middle. I have always wondered why some people take up low wage jobs, remain poor and do not seek to earn a living wage.

One sees these workers in Port Moresby for instance, looking dusty, worn out and exploited yet turning up to work only because it gives them status in their community. A lot of these poor workers are also poorly educated or illiterate.

There are many workers in PNG who do not earn a living wage and, as such, cannot be said to be working to sustain livelihoods so much as maintaining egos. For them, getting a job has more to do with status than survival because their pay alone couldn’t possibly sustain them.

Contrasted with this exploited class of people are PNG’s predatory elite and their equally predatory offspring, growing obese on the fat of other people’s natural resources. Papua New Guinea’s predatory elite does not have a social conscience. But, to be fair, neither do a lot of other ordinary Papua New Guineans.

For many people, social conscience does not extend beyond one’s own social circle. Thus the prevailing condition of rampant corruption at the top and insecurity and social ills at the bottom.

The conditions that allow Papua New Guineans to exploit fellow citizens reflect the inherent nature of the current poorly regulated and exploitive model of development.

Time and time again, various commentators and organisations highlight the governance issues that give rise to the problem. The conventional wisdom is that, if the governance issues are sorted out, things will improve.

However, governance issues are merely a part of the broader question of how to ensure distributive justice in the benefits of economic development. (Even the United States and the rest of the world face the same issue of distributive justice).

Of course lazy people should not receive the same reward as hard working people. But the reality in PNG is that hard working shop assistants and construction and cannery workers are not receiving a fair share of the economic pie.

On the other hand, lazy and corrupt people with connections are exploiting workers, cutting deals for kickbacks and taking a lion’s share of the wealth of the nation.

We live in a heterogeneous country with various complex social structures that shape people’s world view.

At a night club, I once heard a drunk adolescent boasting about her dad’s ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile at a block in Lae, someone who we might consider to be disenfranchised is actually quite happy because of the status that comes with having a low wage job.

How does one pitch issues to people who do not share one’s view of the world? Many of us tend to impose our realities on others without taking into consideration how others see the world. We try to make them see what we see without understanding the different lenses that shape and colour their perceptions.

As a writer, I certainly recognise the mammoth task of framing PNG’s developmental challenges through the experiences of its 7.5 (or possibly 11) million people.


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Michael Dom

Framing PNG's developmental challenges:

It's not so big or so woolly as you might think Martyn.

Too many people in the right position to do things are either not trying hard enough, not even bothering or simply don't care.

Most people are likely in the same situation as many of their leaders, looking up the arse end of an elephant.

What we need to do is take the pesky pachyderm by the tusks.

Phil Fitzpatrick

A very astute analysis Martyn.

It makes you wonder about who is actually listening to people on blogs like this one banging away about the inequities in PNG. Are they just preaching to the converted?

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you Martyn, for sharing your understanding of social classes in PNG today.

I guess you don't have to be rich to be happy! In fact the richer you are the more unhappier you may become. But it is good to have a living wage otherwise you may have to steal to survive.

I have also been watching the lives of the educated, especially my former students, and have some understanding of life in PNG, from the poorest to the wealthiest.

I was just thrilled to hear how a very "poor" isolated Sepik village has bought itself some great timber saw so they can saw their own timber to make better houses. The Malaysians might have come and exploited them for their best trees but now they have a saw, well that's great.

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