Thoughts of then, now & cultural variance
System we gave PNG just doesn’t work

Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution


LAE - How do we return Papua Niugini to a culture of Melanesian cooperation and how can the common people make those in power behave responsibly?

According to the evolutionary perspective, the birthplace of democracy was the tribe. Indeed, tribalism is sometimes referred to as ‘primitive democracy’.

I believe my own attitudes are inspired by democracy and also by independent thinking.

We Papua Niuginians need to learn to think better, and to think independently, because to do so may generate actions that can lead to improving our government.

That perhaps seems counterintuitive, to think independently to improve cooperation.

But I think counterintuitive ideas have an element of novelty that can trigger revised thinking, action and change.

Improving independent thinking is, for me, an important avenue by which improvement in our political system can be achieved.

The process of improving independent thinking is usually left to the education system, which is maintained largely by the government not by the people.

And, as we often find in practice, a good education doesn't necessarily mean a person has learned anything useful about life.

Certainly education is important, but I think we can agree that there's more to learning than schooling.

Culture and society also play a major role in shaping the attitudes people have to learning and in learning how to learn.

Education plays its role in nation building by providing the foundational processes and subsequent opportunities which enable people to maximise their contribution to society.

The results of an educational process are delivered within a society and that society forms the matrix through which people are nurtured and their talents expressed.

The actors in nation building need to be well prepared to take up the task.

Society is where rules and regulations, norms and values, morals and beliefs come into play.

Society needs to support nation building and the manner in which it finds unity.

So what unifying values does our society hold which may contribute to nation building?

And by what rules and regulations, and by what acceptable morals and beliefs, do we judge ourselves and our leaders?

This field of inquiry is where culture plays its active role in nation building, since some aspects of a culture may be conducive to positive advance and others may be regressive.

What do we consider to be a useful member of society?

Is the answer to that synonymous with a Member of Parliament?

And should it be?

What is our leadership culture and what does it reflect about our societies’ values?

These seemingly esoteric questions should not be left with academics and intellectuals.

Academics are part of the education system and have a vested interest in its successes and its failings.

How do we work with culture and society?

In my case, the solutions that I can work with directly include participating in national literature and promoting reading and writing skills.

This, for me, is the best least-cost strategy to create a critical mass of independent thinkers.

It cannot be entirely by chance that the vision that underpins PNG’s Vision 2050 and is emblazoned on its cover is, 'We will be a Smart, Wise, Fair, Healthy and Happy Society by 2050'.

Note the order of those words.

Smart we can work on right away. By thinking independently. By thinking full stop.

Wisdom we can gain by formal education or by reading or through the media or by trial and error.

Fair is simply working for the best for everyone, and not taking unjust advantage of anyone.

Healthy is something that smart can figure out, wisdom secure and fairness distribute.

And if we do all that right, the chances of being genuinely Happy increase significantly.

This is a convoluted way for me to agree with Stephen Charteris that "nation building is a compact between the government and its people. Rather than government, it is actually the people who determine the outcomes".

But people don't live their daily lives in politics nor transform their society and 'participate in nation building' by merely taking part in politics.

People build their nation and transform their society by being active creators, observers and participants inside it.

That's a cultural process.

Political pathways do not appear to be productive, in fact, as some commentators regularly tell us that some form of revolutionary action, potentially violent even if suggested otherwise, is required for meaningful political change to occur.

But the order of evolution is society, culture then politics, and we keep reversing it.

It's the same way foolish people want to achieve happiness before wisdom - sorry, misery comes first because we have to be wise enough to know when the happiness that visits us is the real thing.

Reality doesn't happen in reverse.

We can achieve political change without having to keep changing the soiled nappies of our politicians.

It would be the smart thing to do, to choose a wise pathway that is fair to people and which offers a healthier social outcome.

Maybe happiness is having less stress with politicians’ nappy mess.


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Stephen Charteris

“People build their nation and transform their society by being active creators, observers and participants inside it” - Michael Dom, 'Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution' (17 July 2021).

Agreed. If we look at most cities and towns, I believe we see ample evidence of that participation within the boundaries of a particular vision of nation building.

Down the road there is a community school, and the teachers exchange pleasantries in the supermarket with parents on weekends.

Across town at the district hospital mums wait in line outside the Outpatients with fractious babies and a boy with a broken leg arrives on the back of his uncle’s ute to have it X-rayed and attended to. Within some limits, nation building is alive and well here.

My attention has been captured by those who do not participate in this reality. The six million or so who look out upon a mountain vista and note the mist rising from the valley in the morning.

Or wake to the lapping of water on some shoreline, a hundred kilometres by foot or dinghy from the nearest township.

The people described by Michael as subsistence farmers or hunter gathers where resources are communally shared and political power gained and maintained by an assurance of mutual benefit for all.

I have sat on the shore of a remote bay in Lake Murray surrounded only by the sound of birds and heard the faint but distant laughter of children wafting over the dead calm tea colour waters. What is their vision for a Smart, Wise, Fair, Healthy and Happy Society?

I have posed parts of that question to their elders, gathered together in the afternoon shade on the common ground and asked for their thoughts on the collapsed classrooms and abandoned aid post in plain view.

I am genuinely curious to know if that reality is fine with them - or whether it is not. In over thirty years I have yet to meet a community that said they were happy with those outcomes.

That is when you hear “we have no government here.” The unemployed teacher who showed me with noticeable pride tinged with sadness, the last work done by his community’s elementary school children more than half a decade earlier.

The councillor who pointed out the freshly dug resting place of a teenage mother who died the previous week in childbirth.

In 2006, I conducted a census of rubber block owners in a population of approximately 12,000 people scattered among a dozen or so community groups around Lake Murray.

For the record I took a picture of every block holder standing in his or her block. Generally young fit individuals who had the energy to clear and plant two hectares of rubber.

Four years later when I returned to follow-up, I was shocked by the number who had died in the interim. I took pictures instead of their brother, sister or child that had inherited that block.

In 2013, I took a maternal and child health team into the same area where among other things they surveyed the women and from their accounts estimated a maternal death rate in excess of 1,000 per 100,000 live births (Fiji 34, Vanuatu 72, Australia 5). (1)

I believe we are confronted by some stark choices. Continue as is along the pathway defined by the status quo and nothing will change. Or try something different to facilitate better outcomes for those who call themselves the “forgotten people”.

This is the environment where I believe the compact between the government and its people needs serious refocus. Where aid donors must call for proposals that directly address these realities in a sustainable way.

Where lending institutions start their own 'Nation Building Think Tanks’ and consider products that recognise the multifaceted nature of community life: products designed to strengthen more than one sector at a time and link downstream inputs to desired outcomes.

I believe we need to start thinking like communities. They do not perceive a conflict between their input and the delivery of essential services, especially when the alternative is none at all.

Where their effort, for example to increase fishing output, is coupled to improved education services in alignment with the expectations and support of local education authorities.

I believe there must be a huge focus on tapping into the resourcefulness and energy of those that wake to the mist in the valley or the waves lapping at the shore in a way that respects and leverages off their way of life without polluting or destroying their lands or waters.

That pretty much eliminates extractive industries and big Agriculture as partners of choice. It does acknowledge the bedrock importance of traditional land ownership and draws upon the multiple emerging and available technologies to empower women and communities in general to participate in mini economies linked to the provision essential services.

This vision requires close consultation with the end users and the provision of the tools, technologies and support they need to enable them to become a major part of the solution. The solution to problems, so long presumed to be the soul preserve of bureaucrats, when in fact solutions, in large measure, lie in hands of the end users.

This is not some pipe dream. There are examples all over the developing world where advances in photovoltaics meets women’s banana-fibre sanitary pad manufacturing groups. Where simple robust tools emerging from institutions in Tamil Nadu are transforming the lives of rural Indian communities and where user friendly POC diagnostics are preventing the spread of disease in rural settings.

The tools are there and getting better with every passing year. They just need to be applied in a community centric, community empowering way, supported by a vision that acknowledges the dignity and importance of preserving traditional values and people’s way of life on their own land.

I talk to people at community level who agree with this. I discuss models that might be appropriate to a given setting. The challenge is not convincing anyone to have a go. The challenge is to find a single donor, one bank or group that is not paralysed by siloed thinking, blinkered views, stifling protocol, foreign policy objectives or the grand charade of the aid game.

If nation building is to look anything like the much-heralded Sustainable Development Goals, there will need to be a significant adjustment to incorporate the efforts of the eighty five percent who are missing out.

(1) The World Bank: Maternal mortality ratio (modelled estimate, per 100,000 live births) Accessed 17 July 2021.

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