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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.