BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO | PNG Informal Economist
PORT MORESBY - In August, under a headline that read ‘APEC is for you PNG’, APEC minister Justin Tkatchenko said the benefits of hosting APEC would last for many years and would strengthen many sectors in the economy.
The minister’s statement seems to portray APEC as a defining event in Papua New Guinea’s history with its impact to resonate for many years to come.
As the date for the APEC leaders’ forum draws nearer, Papua New Guineans will get a chance to assess whether APEC 2018 lives up to its hype and transforms our fortunes for the better.
Or will it instead become a shadow that will haunt us for many years to come. For PNG’s sake, let’s hope for the former.
APEC is a regional economic forum established in 1989 to leverage the growing interdependence of the Asia-Pacific. APEC's 21 members (including PNG) aim to create greater prosperity for the people of the region by promoting balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative and secure growth and by accelerating regional economic integration.
Among its 21 economies PNG is described as the smallest and poorest. In this regard PNG hosting the APEC is fascinating and intriguing to its citizens and the world at large.
Nobody knows how PNG is going to fare in this although the government is adamant it will be a success.
The sheer weight of ensuring the safety of some of the world’s most powerful leaders is in itself a monumental task at a time when there is heightened fear of geo-political tensions and terrorism.
Already Port Moresby is described as one of the most dangerous cities in the world therefore success may help to change this perception. It alone will mean another leap forward in PNG’s relatively short history. At the same time failure to deliver will be catastrophic.
Although claims by the government of massive benefits in investment and trade from hosting APEC remain to be seen, the event will at least put PNG in the spotlight.
The APEC summit is already by far the biggest event to date for PNG after it played host to the Pacific Games in 2015, the FIFA Under 20 Women’s World Cup in 2016 and the Rugby League World Cup in 2017.
Preparation for the summit so far is experiencing a roller coaster ride.
While the government is trying to sell the APEC to the public by promoting it as an “historic event” in the nation’s history, scepticism over the cost associated with hosting the event is rapidly eroding public support.
Recent controversy surrounding the purchase of 40 Maserati Quattroporte, Bentley Flying Spur vehicles and dozens of luxury SUVs has resulted in widespread condemnation from the public.
While the use of luxury cars may be standard practice for big events such as APEC, the purchase of these cars has been very unpopular in light of teachers’ pay issues and health issues, especially the re-emergence of polio.
Furthermore, PNG is still struggling to contain tuberculosis and an accelerating incidence of malaria. On the economic front, the cost of fuel, food and other basic necessities is constantly rising.
So far, large investment in the extractive sector has not translated into tangible outcomes for the majority of Papua New Guineans. PNG LNG has not lived up to the hype that it would be a transformational project.
Port Moresby as the host city for APEC is expected to benefit greatly compared to other provinces. Indications from the Pacific Games and Rugby League World Cup are that, in the short run, residents will derive some form of money benefit through engagement as volunteers and cleaners.
Companies receiving contracts to provide transport, hospitality, catering and other services will also benefit. Yet it remains to be seen how many local companies will participate in these ventures.
In the long run, it is unclear how the majority of city residents as well as the country as a whole will benefit. This will depend very much on how the government negotiates with APEC member countries in the areas of trade and investment.
While APEC Haus and the new world class Hilton hotel in Hohola will play host to world leaders and their entourages, many Papua New Guineans in Port Moresby will remain in their overcrowded settlements, most of which lack basic necessities like water and power. In villages across PNG life will go on as always.
While major freeways in Port Moresby are undergoing maintenance and improvement, most suburban and street roads are in a deplorable condition. In Gordons Market the broken sewage pipes spew out waste to the disgust of vendors and shoppers. It s an ongoing problem.
Public transport in Port Moresby and other major urban centres is a mess. Every public space in the city is taken over by hordes of petty criminals who, in the name of survival, prey upon the working class and women market vendors.
The forum theme (‘Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities, Embracing Digital Future’) looks far-fetched in a country that has one of the most expensive internet rates in the world and where the provision of mobile telephony and telecommunications services remains one of the biggest challenges.
Yet, in a country with well-documented physical constraints, technological innovation will be a key driver in advancing major development goals such as financial inclusion, SME development and good governance.
In the area of inclusiveness the government still has a long way to go although it should be credited for promoting gender equity and social inclusion in work places through its GESI policy.
Advancing the rights of people living with disabilities, gender equity and protecting rights of marginalised groups such as informal economy participants, remains a big challenge for the government.
It is hoped that discussions at the APEC summit pertaining to inclusiveness will improve the government’s attentiveness to addressing these issues.
Discussions on issues like SME [small to medium business enterprises] should embrace the informal economy and the important role of women in this sector. PNG, through its chairmanship of APEC, has the chance to be the vanguard in promoting the importance of the informal economy.
Papua New Guinea is in uncharted waters in hosting APEC. At the negotiating table PNG will have to use tactful diplomacy as the host and chair to get the most from the event, bearing in mind the fact that the Asia Pacific region - through China and India - is becoming a focal point for global supremacy.
As the largest economy in the Pacific, PNG can play a leading role in mapping out a sustainable future for its people and the region by ensuring that critical issues ranging from fair trade to climate change are highlighted.
While this is highly desirable there is a danger the summit will end up as another slugfest as the biggest economies jostle for prominence. The atmosphere leading into November's summit is indicative of that but for PNG’s sake let’s hope that it is worth all the sacrifices and resources that the people of this country have had to incur, reluctantly or not. Wisdom must triumph over ego and commonsense must reign over irrationality.
Good or bad, this APEC forum will leave a lasting impression on PNG and how our country is perceived in the world.
While the government is eager to please our visitors, it must know that it will be doing this at the expense of the people of this country. It must make sure that the road leading to APEC – and leading away from it - paves the way for Papua New Guineans to realise their full potential and their place in the global arena.