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PNG is bottom of the charts again; don’t be worried though


EVERY so often a set of statistics surfaces in which Papua New Guinea is invariably sitting close to the bottom of the barrel of whatever is being measured.

Without fail these statistics are sensationalised in the media and waved about and quoted by all the professional doomsayers.

We’ve just had a set of statistics that said that two-thirds of the Papua New Guinean rural population live without access to clean water.

This was followed by another set that told us Papua New Guinea has dropped a notch in the human development stakes. It is now 154th out of 185 countries.

What does this actually mean? What is the purpose of such reports? What sort of criteria are used in their compilation?

Where do the statistics come from? Are they reliable? And who are they aimed at anyway?

Few people seem to read the actual reports. Instead they seize on the disastrous numbers and beat them up with self-satisfied zealotry.

To find out the answers to some of the above questions I decided to have a detailed look at the latest Human Development Report. This report is a spinoff of the old United Nation’s Millennium Goals program. It seeks to carry the momentum on to 2030.

Here are a few interesting quotes from the report:

“The Human Development Report is the product of the Human Development Report Office (HDRO) at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).”

“The findings, analysis and policy recommendations of the Report are those of the HDRO alone and cannot be attributed to UNDP or to its Executive Board.”

“The UN General Assembly has officially recognised the Human Development Report as ‘an independent, intellectual exercise’ that has become ‘an important tool for raising awareness about human development around the world.’”

The UNDP Administrator, by the way, is Helen Clark, the former Labour Party prime minister of New Zealand.

So we know it’s simply an “intellectual” exercise designed to “raise awareness”. In layman’s terms this means that it is designed to embarrass slack and recalcitrant governments into doing something about the mess in their countries. Good luck with that one.

So what sort of criteria are they talking about?

In this case it is life expectancy, expected years of education against mean years of education and gross national per-capita income, some of which is differentiated by gender.

Australia sits at number two on the statistical list in the report’s addendums, just below Norway. Australia actually does better than Norway in just about everything except income per person, so apart from that it is top of the list.

Helen Clark’s New Zealand comes in at 13th.

Australians have an average life expectancy of 82.5 years, kids go to school for 13.2 years and people earn on average $48,822 a year (Norwegians earn $67,614 but pay a hell of a lot more tax). These statistics are reliable.

That pretty much makes Australia the yardstick against which other countries are measured.

Papua New Guinea has an average life expectancy of 62.8 years, kids go to school for 4.3 years and people earn on average $2,712. These statistics are questionable.

Looks bad for PNG doesn’t it? No wonder it sits at 154th place alongside Zimbabwe.

Well, it would be if Australia and Papua New Guinea were similar societies but we are not. How many subsistence farmers are there in Australia? A few thousand hippies maybe.

That’s the problem with comparing apples with oranges. Or industrial societies with agrarian societies.

So where do these statistics come from?

Are there teams of people with clipboards scouring PNG collecting this data? I don’t think so.

Here’s what the report says about its stats.

“Unless otherwise noted, the HDRO uses data from international data agencies with the mandate, resources and expertise to collect national data on specific indicators”.

How many such wide-ranging data collection agencies are there in Papua New Guinea? Apart from old census figures I couldn’t find any by searching the internet. Those that I found are mostly commercially orientated, more interested in fleecing people than helping them. If you know of any let me know.

This might explain why there are so many gaps in the figures for PNG in the report. A perusal of the extensive bibliography of consultant reports and papers also reveals none related to Papua New Guinea.

Do they just make up the numbers? Do they extrapolate from somewhere else?

Who knows? I turned the report upside down several times and followed a lot of their internet links and I’m none the wiser.

We all know that PNG has problems. Papua New Guineans know that Papua New Guinea has problems. They don’t need a bunch of vague statistics of dubious quality to tell them what they already know.

These problems are enumerated on a daily basis, especially in social media, but the government has never listened except at election time.

Why would it take any notice of a report from a bunch of international consultants that even the UN doesn’t endorse? The elites and their foreign business mates are making money hand over fist – that’s all that matters to them.

The Human Development Report has laudable aims but is it living on cloud nine?

“From a human development perspective, we want a world where all human beings have the freedom to realize their full potential in life so they can attain what they value. This is what human development is all about—universalism, leaving no one behind.

“Universal human development must enable all people—regardless of their age, citizenship, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other identity— to expand their capabilities fully and put those capabilities to use.

“This also means that capabilities and opportunities are sustainable throughout an individual’s lifecycle and across generations. But those less endowed or lagging behind need support from others—from individuals, communities and states—to realize their full potential.

“In the ultimate analysis, development is of the people, by the people and for the people. People have to partner with each other. There needs to be a balance between people and the planet. And humanity has to strive for peace and prosperity. Human development requires recognizing that every life is equally valuable and that human development for everyone must start with those farthest behind.

“The 2016 Human Development Report is an intellectual contribution to resolving these issues. We strongly believe that only after they are resolved will we all reach the end of the road together. And when we look back, we will see that no one has been left out”.

You can’t argue with those sentiments I guess, but how realistic are they?

It seems a great effort and use of resources to tell us what we already know and maybe dream about.

Sooner or later there will be another set of horrible statistics. Don’t let them upset you. The government certainly won’t be upset, so why should you?


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John Burton | Divine Word University

What does this actually mean? Are you kidding?

Not having a functioning health service, clean water and safe sanitation (the simplest things) means that the under age five mortality rate is 57/1,000 (maybe - Human Development Report 2016).

And the maternal mortality rate is somewhere between 215/100,000 (as watered down for consumption in the Human Development Report 2016) or "between 500 and 700/100,000" (Prof Glen Mola 2017 in 'Thirty years of continuous maternal care and perinatal audit from a national referral hospital in a low-resource country leads to better professional skills and maternal outcomes: The Papua New Guinea experience').

"Papua New Guineans ... don’t need a bunch of vague statistics of dubious quality to tell them what they already know" - really?

My students are pretty confident things "aren't that bad" and, because they are not all very good at numbers, few have a strong idea what the under fives mortality or the MMR means in daily life.

Let us be clear. Such bad indicators mean that Papua New Guineans have been cheated by 41 years of governments and have been slow to ask why so many of their siblings, nieces and nephews, their mothers and aunties are just ... there is no polite way to put it ... stone cold dead.

This is not normal.

As for a "bunch of international consultants", that is a helpful comment is it? Is Glen Mola one of them? I think not.

PNG doesn't have to be compared with Australia or Norway. Comparing PNG with Fiji would be quite sufficient.

You'd find that if PNG health system had performed as well Fiji's since 1975, 350,000 avoidable fatalities could have been since Independence, more than the population of Vanuatu, or Oro and New Ireland Provinces combined (http://devpolicy.org/human-development-a-nearest-neighbour-analysis20110116/).

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