The Lae police footbeat unit
No degree – so police commissioner removed

Living with crime & violence in PNG

Crime constrains investment and growth  and the costs ripple throughout society (World Bank)
Crime constrains investment and growth and the costs ripple throughout society (World Bank)

| World Bank Blogs | Edited

SYDNEY -Last month I was interviewing participants in the World Bank’s urban youth employment project in Port Moresby, talking about the challenges that Papua New Guinea’s young people face in finding work.

One issue that came up repeatedly was mobility – or the lack of it: the ability to travel safely to and from the workplace.

It’s no secret that parts of Port Moresby are dangerous and crime is high. There are regular stories of carjacking but public transport is also a huge risk – an issue which disproportionately affects workers from poorer parts of the city.

The human resources manager told me casually how she was stabbed at a bus-stop and her bilum stolen and how one of the reception staff was stabbed twice on a bus getting home from work.

The young woman we were profiling was held up on a bus at gunpoint in the area of Two Mile.

I was told that attacks on public transport seem to be increasing, and the general manager of the hotel said this was a major issue for his staff.

As with most workplaces, there is a staff-bus that ferries staff to and from work, but even this bus has ‘no-go areas’ – parts of the city where the risks are seen to be too high for it to enter.

Staff who live in these settlements have to make their own way and they face considerable risk, especially after hours.

New World Bank reports attempt to quantify some of the costs PNG faces from violent crime.

According to official figures, crime rates have stabilised over the last decade, but there are significant regional disparities: crime is seemingly on the rise in ‘hotspots’ like Lae, the Western Highlands and the National Capital District, and it is increasingly violent. Use of firearms is escalating.

The reports look at direct costs faced by local firms – finding for example that the average business loses K90,000 in stolen property every year; and close to the same amount as a result of closing early due to threats of violence.

But they also detail many indirect costs that are more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) to quantify.

Issues include staff absenteeism and lost productivity, businesses unwilling to expand into new areas or sectors resulting in significant foregone investment, and small firms unable to get going because of high security costs.

There is a burden on the healthcare system as a result of rising violence in urban areas, and escalating exclusion and inequality because of employers not wanting to employ people from certain areas.

And there is the issue of gender-based violence, which is a known though too often silent reality across PNG.

Globally, World Bank research suggests that gender-based violence can cost a country between 1.2% and 3.7% of GDP.

PNG is a wonderful country I’ve been privileged to work in and always been made to feel welcome there.

But it is true that crime is a reality of everyday life for many people, especially in the cities – and for locals more than foreigners.

There are no simple answers. The causes of violent crime are largely structural – linked to poverty and inequality in a context where economic growth hasn’t yet benefitted the majority of the people.

As a consequence security costs are a spiralling expense. Private security accounts for an average of 5% of annual operating costs for a business in PNG, with nearly a third of firms reporting that for them it’s more than 10%.

But the evidence suggests that crime is not prevented by such huge costs - it is just displaced - and these costs will keep increasing. For many emerging businesses, especially smaller enterprises, they are prohibitive.

“I started out as a truck driver 25 years ago and built up my business from there,” one business owner told me. “Now if I was looking to expand and diversify, I couldn’t do it. It’s the smaller firms that are the most fragile, those getting started. They can’t afford to carry these sorts of risks.”

To my mind, the only real answer, the true conversation, is about addressing the root causes of crime and violence – poverty, inequality, unemployment and marginalization of some groups, especially youth.

Laura Keenan works in communications for Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands and is based in the Sydney office of the World Bank


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