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Communities only answer to PNG failures


CAIRNS - What is unfolding in Papua New Guinea is nothing short of a human tragedy on a significant scale.

Superficially the nation’s woes appear to be the result of corruption. But they are more complex than that.

This is not the first time we have witnessed failures of the state and the inevitable outcomes.

Examples include the emergency rollout of vaccines to stop the spread of whooping cough among a non-immunised population of children and babies, or rice dropped from Chinook helicopters to feed people whose traditional crops had failed.

These were localised failures. This time, however, the failure has been complete and total in its impact. A situation that could have been foreseen in the event of something as pernicious as Covid arising.

Village2I believe it is fair to say this is the inevitable outcome of more than four decades of disconnect between the PNG government at almost every level and the thousands of communities it is supposed to serve.

The reasons are complex, but in essence PNG is not a state where there is widespread recognition that any level of government is truly representative of its citizens.

The Westminster system of representation inherited at the birth of the nation has become a game played by powerful men seeking at least five good years of snouts buried deeply in the public trough.

With the exception of a few lone voices – and they do exist – the majority of parliamentary representatives are there to further personal, family and clan interests.

In the past we have seen more than 150 candidates stand for parliament in a single electorate. We have witnessed an elected MP with five percent of the popular vote proclaiming he has a mandate from the people. A mandate from his clan, maybe.

Village3Today vested interests ensure that only big monied candidates win, consigning potentially good representatives to being just another voice. Women have been almost totally excluded.

This is a nation of nine million people – 80% live on traditional land, there are 850 distinct languages, identity is defined by language, culture and place, allegiance is almost exclusively to clan, recognised governance doesn’t extend much beyond the community boundary.

It is within this milieu that we have witnessed what historically appears to have been a single-minded focus by development partners upon capacity building PNG government agencies along the lines of Australian models without sufficient consideration of how these structures are to successfully integrate with communities. By successfully, I mean culturally.

While our well-intentioned efforts have been focussed on building the administrative machinery and technical capacity associated with a modern nation state, there has also been a profound failure to connect the dots between that activity and the cultural reality of community life.

Village4This is a way of life that has not fundamentally changed one iota since the way it was before independence.

Superficially, the trappings of modern life are visible, there are cell phones, motor vehicles and fast fashion.

However, traditional values and an individual’s responsibilities to bloodline still govern almost every aspect of life. 

This a reality that does not stop at the community boundary, but which follows successful students through school and university into their public service, business or political lives.

The trappings that may come with the life of a professional person living in a major urban centre do not change anything.

The cultural dynamic is a given, as much a part of the DNA of the thousands of clans that make up the country as footy and Christmas are to Australia.

Village5I particularly noted the comments made by Kenny Pawa: “We no longer believe in the politicians who make seasonal decisions in which it scares people many times.”

And Philip Kai Morre: “It’s time to shift support to NGOs and churches directly to assist the suffering majority in the rural areas.”

I believe these sentiments go to the heart of the matter. They are one hundred percent right.

Would the outcome have been the same if the health sector had worked with communities as equal partners over the past four decades?

What if the models of service delivery had recognised the primacy of culture and place?

What if they had recognised the importance of the participation of local leadership in fundamental decision making?

Village6What if leaders were clearly tasked with governance and accountability for deliverables to their people on their land?

If nation building is truly a shared journey, and it most certainly needs to be in PNG, then nearly two generations of outside intervention would not have ignored these fundamentals that determine outcomes.

If nothing else, the impact of Covid is a wake-up call to the myriad of outsiders whose worldview doesn’t cut it in PNG and, unless something changes, it never will.

It is time for a huge step change to remove several layers of inherited government administration that don’t work.

The focus must be on the integration of primary services at community level with local participation, control and responsibility for outcomes.


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Lindsay F Bond

Is the Province level of governance anything other than to keep provincial squabbles at arms length from the fruits that are for the picking at Waigani?

Robert L Parer CMG MBE

In Aitape, when the Siau Council was in charge of the Aitape Sub-District, we were all amazed how most things were operating right down to each village having a village water pump.

Bigman Brere Awol was the first president and when he became a Member of Parliament he handed over to Nagot Waina of Yakoi/Tumleo and it continued being run so very well.

Jack McCarthy, a feature article writer for South Pacific Post and later Walkley Award winning journalist, called in a few times at Aitape and was very impressed with the Siau Council and in his book 'New Guinea Journeys' he said he could see the way of the future in PNG was to have well run Councils like the Siau Council.

But some years later he came and found that once National Government brought in Provincial Government the Members found the Councils were a threat to their powers and cut off their finances.

From then on it was all down hill and the Councils had no funds to continue on their good work.And the Provincial Government were not organised enough to take over the Council duties.So it is obvious that middle layer of Government must be removed.

As Stephen Charteris said, "It is time for a huge step change to remove several layers of inherited government administration that don’t work.The focus must be on the integration of primary services at community level with local participation, control and responsibility for outcomes."

So very true Stephen.

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