PNG politics after the boom: could be a turbulent year
A Kiap's Chronicle: 1 - ASOPA

We’re a very corrupt nation. So what can we do about it?

A highly corrupt landMARTYN NAMORONG

TRANSPARENCY International has ranked Papua New Guinea 139th out of 168 countries in its latest Corruption Perception Index.

PNG is the 25th most corrupt nation on earth ranking alongside Bangladesh, Guinea, Kenya, Laos and Uganda.

When I was in primary school in the rural rainforests of south-western Papua New Guinea, I used to stand at attention with my right hand across my heart every morning when the flag was being raised.

Even if I was walking late to school, I would stop at attention if I spotted the flag being raised at the assembly.

At Kamusie Primary School, the flag was everything. We’d sing the national anthem to the beat of the traditional Western Province bamboo percussion drum. We'd stand at attention to recite the national pledge.

The flag and the pledge meant something to us. They were a source of national pride and a symbol of the hope that one day we’d contribute to nation building. For us, that meant the opportunity to further our studies and live our dreams.

Decades later, I found myself as a street vendor in the nation’s capital with no idea of where my life was headed. All those primary school values about nation building and allegiance to the flag evaporated as the daily struggles of life in the city took precedence.

I was a street vendor during PNG’s golden age of economic growth due to activities related to the construction of PNG’s $US19 billion liquefied natural gas project.

I wonder to this day what became of all my peers at Kamusie. I believe, for many of them, the PNG flag must seem a monumental let down. And the words of the national pledge seem meaningless to those in power.

Of course as a betel nut (buai) vendor, I fell into the category of social outcasts. I remember how at medical school, the lecturers would warn us not to end up being buai sellers.

It would be too easy to blame this or that. We all love to blame. But I don’t blame anyone or any institution.

I believe in collective responsibility for this issue. Everyone in PNG is responsible for the country being classed amongst the corrupt dirt bags.

There are three sets of scumbags in PNG. The very intelligent predatory elite who manipulate systems to siphon off the wealth of the nation is one group.

The second are the rank and file lawbreakers: violent criminals and filthy, stinky petty thieves being the most obvious.

The third group is the rest of us (me included) who tolerate the predatory elite and the criminals.

In Port Moresby, you often have to get on the wrong bus to travel to the right place.

To save a couple of kina you would otherwise pay to go direct, the cheaper option of travelling from A to B requires several changes of bus. This is because buses often do not complete their designated routes.

The drivers get away with this because of a lack of enforcement and the complacency of the travelling public.

And even if there is enforcement, it is usually because the traffic officers are looking for spare cash, which they collect from the drivers as bribes in order to waive fines.

A couple of months back I visited a friend in hospital. Despite the severity of his condition, the medical registrar was not available in the ward to attend to him. Out of desperation his family asked me – a former medical student - to intervene.

I wrote an illegal prescription for diuretics and went and ordered the drugs from the pharmacy. After explaining the dire situation to the pharmacist the drugs were dispensed.

My friend was recovering the next morning. The registrar saw him later only after a nurse was bribed to contact him.

My friend is now well but the whole process to cure him was utterly corrupt, including my own actions.

And that, my fellow countrymen and women, pretty much sums up the predicament of our country.

You have to get on the wrong bus to get to the right place.

You have to do wrong things to cure sick people.

In PNG, the national psyche has reached a consensus that the ends justify the means.

Even in church, donations from the proceeds of corruption are called blessings because apparently someone had been blessed and wanted to bless others.

In PNG, corrupt behavior is tolerated because the alternative would inevitably lead to conflict.

Rather than pestering someone to do their job, we bribe them. The alternative is to be in conflict with that person and nothing gets done.

Port Moresby is probably the only place on earth where bus and taxi drivers have gone on strike in order to avoid traffic regulations.

PNG is an expensive, inefficient and corrupt country and we’ve internally normalised and sanitised all that filth.

“What’s new?” some people ask.

Em normal ya!” many say. [Pidgin for that's the way things are.]

Others simply convince themselves that, as patriotic Papua New Guineans, they love PNG no matter what and those who say negative things should be deported. I find such blind patriotism pathetic.

I wonder if my peers from Kamusie would stand with their right hands across their hearts if they came across a flag being raised today. I wonder if they feel let down like their peers around the country.

I don’t feel personally let down by anyone or any institution. I don’t want to blame others because that is too easy and doesn’t address anything.

I believe we are all collectively responsible for this mess and to point fingers is to absolve one's self of the responsibility to address the issue.

That indeed has been the problem: we blame others for corruption and expect those who we label as corrupt to someone solve the problem. That is the most counter-intuitive rationale.

How can you expect someone who benefits from corruption to fight it?

Politicians aren’t going to fight corruption. The system that produces politicians, that is, the electoral process, is corrupt. How can you expect corrupt people and a corrupt system to solve the problem of corruption?

By the same token, what hope is there for a population that tolerates corruption?

I do not believe in fixing a corrupt system. I prefer to have it replaced. That is the natural order of things. Everybody knows that there are some things in life you can’t fix – you replace them.

Addressing corruption isn’t just about replacing people, it’s also about replacing the system that fosters corruption.

It was therefore with much interest last week that I listened to Lawrence Stephens, the chairman of Transparency International, tell the story of Singapore’s rise.

What most people don’t talk about is that Singapore’s rise wasn’t just because of Lee Kwan Yew’s anti-corruption stance but also because of his benevolent dictatorship.

Singapore not only had a change of people at the top but a change of the system to enable it to have low levels of corruption and social and economic progress.

The question for Papua New Guineans is to ask ourselves whether we want to continue to score 25 out of 100 and be ranked in the toilet pit of nations or to replace not just the people but the systems that enable corruption.

There is an alternative, of course. And that is to be spectators watching our nation self-destruct.


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Vikki John

Well said.
I thought you would also be interested in the article below and this comment from a friend:
Last paragraph says it all. I don't know of any society in the world where indigenous peoples (apart from a handful of elites although I suppose in the Middle East aka UAE and Qatar there are exceptions have ever benefited from extraction of natural resources. There is too much BS about benefit sharing mechanisms or revenue sharing......

Inter Press Service
News Agency 29 January 2016

A Peaceful Decade but Pacific Islanders Warn Against Complacency
By Catherine Wilson

Pacific Island leaders say that preventing future conflict depends on addressing inequality, unemployment, land disputes and governance. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS
Pacific Island leaders say that preventing future conflict depends on addressing inequality, unemployment, land disputes and governance. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS
CANBERRA, Australia, Jan 29 2016 (IPS) - The Pacific Islands conjures pictures of swaying palm trees and unspoiled beaches. But, after civil wars and unrest since the 1980’s, experts in the region are clear that Pacific Islanders cannot afford to be complacent about the future, even after almost a decade of relative peace and stability. And preventing conflict goes beyond ensuring law and order.
“Future stability is far from assured in the Pacific, or indeed any region of the world,” Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary-General of the Fiji-based Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), supported by conflict prevention adviser, Tim Bryar, told IPS.
“Research shows that the greatest predictor of future conflict is past conflict. Therefore, places such as Bougainville and New Caledonia which not only have a history of civil war, but also the presence of unaddressed potential root causes of conflict, such as extractive activities and inter-ethnic tensions…would suggest that we need to be vigilant,” she continued.
Frida Bani-Sam of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy in Vanuatu said that with rising socioeconomic inequalities being a major conflict risk, “the onus is on good leadership at the helm, leadership that can ensure economic and social stability, now and into the future.”
The most serious post-Second World War fray in the region was the decade long Bougainville civil war (1989-98) in Papua New Guinea, triggered by local grievances about inequitable benefit sharing from the foreign-owned Panguna copper mine and environmental devastation. An estimated 15,000-20,000 people or 10 per cent of the population lost their lives and infrastructure and the economy were decimated.
In the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, located southwest of Fiji, inequality and loss of land fuelled pro-independence resistance and unrest in the mid-1980s. Local expectations will intensify with referendums on independence due to be held in New Caledonia in 2018 and Bougainville by 2020.
The Solomon Islands, which neighbours Bougainville, also experienced a five-year conflict, known as the ‘Tensions’ (1998-2003), ending with a regional peacekeeping intervention. Hostilities escalated over land dispossession to internal migrants and foreign investors on Guadalcanal Island, exacerbated by lack of economic opportunities and failure of governance to address the rising violence. An estimated 50,000 people were displaced, thousands experienced human rights abuses and development plummeted.
Root causes, such as inequality, land disputes, fragile governance and youth unemployment, remain sources of tensions in the region today, according to the PIFS.
A broad section of the region’s population is affected by unemployment, but youth, who account for about 54 per cent, are particularly vulnerable. Population growth rates in small Pacific Island states far exceed their capacity to generate jobs, even for those with education, and youth unemployment ranges from 16 per cent in Samoa to 46 per cent in the Solomon Islands.
In north Bougainville, Dorcas Gano, President of the Hako Women’s Collective told IPS that “our small towns and struggling economy cannot cater to white collar employment for more than a very few.”
The collective is looking for ways to address “the need for rural employment skills or qualified training for the vast majority of youth who miss out on progressing past Grades 8 and 10. If these needs are not urgently addressed then ‘rascal-ism’ will rise and could lead to future unrest.”
Disenfranchised youth were drawn to the ‘Tensions,’ riots in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara, in 2006 and civil unrest the same year in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, when hundreds expressed anger at stalled government progress toward democracy.
But Bani-Sam emphasised that young people must be part of the solution, declaring that “youth, being the next generation of leaders, need to be empowered so they can participate meaningfully in the development conversation.”
For the vast majority of Pacific Islanders without formal employment, access to customary land is crucial for shelter, social security and subsistence and market food production. But influences such as the global cash-based economy and corruption, particularly when access to natural resources is involved, have aggravated land disputes.
“If we accept the existing [development] model which supports private property ownership and strongly links economic development to commodity extraction, then I think corruption is, of course, a problem because the money made from economic activities on land tends to not reach the customary custodians of the land, let alone the general population,” Dame Meg Taylor remarked.
Preventative approaches must include full implementation of free, informed and prior consent by traditional landowners “and by ‘full implementation’, I mean that governments must be willing to accept that some landowners may not want to consent to handing over their land,” she added.
Tackling the causes of land-related violence is a priority. The approach of the PIFS is to bridge traditional and western land management practices by, for instance, clarifying customary landowner rights and responsibilities of both governments and landowners in land dealings.
But there is also wider corruption involving politicians, public officials and organised criminals, named as a threat to development and stability during a regional security meeting in 2013.
State capture is acknowledged to have contributed to the ‘Tensions.’ A background paper commissioned by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports that “national politicians were noticeably in the pocket of various Asian logging companies seeking and gaining ready access to the Solomon Islands’ forests for logging rights in return for bribes and sweeteners” and “a range of actors, including ex-militants, politicians and businessmen, benefitted financially from the violence and disorder,” which ensued.
Bani-Sam points out that climate induced migration, together with rapid population growth, could also increase pressures on land and resources and “the risk of conflict cannot be ignored.” But the risk diminishes if the resettlement of communities and relationships with host landowners are well managed, experts say.
Preventing future conflict is a priority at the regional level. The PIFS aims to improve access to justice for marginalised groups, include women in peace and security decision-making and strengthen weapons control and traditional conflict resolution processes.
The Biketawa Declaration is a declaration agreed to by all the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum constituting a framework for coordinating response to regional crises. The declaration was agreed to at the 31st Summit of Pacific Islands Forum Leaders, held at Kiribati in October 2000 after the 2000 Fijian coup d’état and ethnic tensions in the Solomon Islands.
This declaration also provides for rapid regional responses to crises in island states. The Biketawa Declaration has led to military and police forces as well as civilian personnel of Forum states, chiefly Australia and New Zealand, participating in regional peacekeeping and stabilization operations in Solomon Islands (2003-), Nauru (2004-2009) and Tonga (2006.)
People are taking action at the local level, too. In Bougainville, the Hako Women’s Collective works on meaningful reconciliation which is vital to rebuilding trust and conflict resilience in communities.
“We live in a very tolerant and peaceful community where everyone has chosen to live above the situation, but underneath the surface there is frozen trauma….Relatives don’t mention the mass graves in town covered by new infrastructure or the beatings and near deaths during interrogations. We are working quietly alongside other leaders to negotiate reconciliation in these matters,” Gano explained.
But going to the heart of the problem, Dame Meg Taylor believes that ensuring sustainable peace and development also depends on “a structural shift in the development paradigm.” That is, rethinking the extractive economic focus, which has failed to alleviate hardship and inequality, and seeking one that will build fair and prosperous Pacific Island societies, the best insurance against future conflict.

Paul Oates

If you think its difficult to live in today's PNG society, it is also difficult to be on the outside looking in and to see a system that worked for almost everyone dismantled and reconstructed into a system that only works for a few who are busily making sure they keep the status quo.

It's not as if this hasn't happened before in the annals of human history.

The essential lesson that must be accepted is that humans are the same no matter where they live or what cultural backgrounds they come from. PNG people are no different from any other group of people and must therefore learn the lessons of history.

All one has to do is learn from history. Look at how better systems evolved and how people ensured corruption was overturned.

The essence of where PNG took a wrong turn was to maintain PNG was different and that there was a PNG way of doing things. That was the problem and that was unfortunately but understandably the wrong road to take.

John K Kamasua

Martin - I have had to fork out a few bucks for a doctor or nurse in some of the hospitals to treat sick and dying relatives in the city.

If I did not do it, and let the process of waiting continue, we could have waited for hours and the relative needing medical attention would have collapsed or died.

This was for convenience, but I still feel guilty now because usually there were so many good people just lining up to medical attention.

Yet there are those who still go about their jobs with a smile and will serve you to the best of their abilities. These are the sort of people who still inspire us and instill some hope..

I have a firm believe that we the people for whom government and systems exist, are victims of structural inadequacies that for a long time now, people in power and authority have not done much to alter!

Martyn Namorong

I just wish to clarify that I am not advocating for a benevolent dictatorship.

I only referred to Singapore as it was mentioned during the launching of the Corruption Perception Index.

But what I am reflecting on is that systems and representation need an overhaul.

There are options like Direct Democracy for instance

Direct democracy has essentially been how PNG societies have governed themselves and continue to do so (albeit with the exclusion of women in decision making).

Again I must also clarify that I am not advocating for a full transition to direct democracy.

I think in the end, Papua New Guineans have to reflect on what the most efficient mechanisms exist that maintain order, deliver justice and provide for the needs of communities.

What seems to be the trap that many fall for is to look for so called "simple solutions" to complex issues.

What we need to essentially ask ourselves is, "what are the tools by which we redistribute wealth and power throughout PNG so that our people can be able to address their own problems?"

This has been a lingering question that was raised since independence (and the push for decentralisation).

I suppose my views represent an attempt to deconstruct and challenge the prevailing narrative that social stratification along with the stratification of wealth and power are inevitable.

Joe Herman

Excellent article, Martyn. The current system is not perfect but it is democracy. We may not approve of the way in which it is working but that has nothing to do with the concept, rather greedy people abusing their positions of power and privilege. An effective judicial system of prosecuting crimes might be part of the solution.

Phil Fitzpatrick

"In Port Moresby, you often have to get on the wrong bus to travel to the right place."

If you change "Port Moresby" to "Papua New Guinea" that pretty much sums up the situation.

I think I agree with Michael about dictatorships. Lee Kwan Yew was a one-off. All the other dictators in the world are corrupt. The chances of getting that sort of dictator in Papua New Guinea are pretty high, maybe 99.9%.

There has to be another solution. Buggered if I know what it is though.

Brilliant article Martyn.

Michael Dom

I like everything in this article, Martyn.

And you may be about to get that which you pray for - is it not clear to you that Peter O'Neill believes that he is the 'benevolent dictator' for whom you call?

Changing the system, yes. But with who in charge?

A dictatorship may be harder to replace than the current farcical democracy.

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