A Kiap’s Chronicle: 32 - A prime ministerial intervention
Did Zed go to Honiara to learn or to tell?

US will work on PNG’s biggest problems

Land cleared by ExxonMobil for an airfield  Komo  2010 (Jes Aznar  The New York Times)
Men walk across land being cleared by ExxonMobil for Komo airstrip in 2010. The massive LNG project has been a major unsettling influence in the area (Jes Aznar,  New York Times)

| United States Institute of Peace | Edited

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - In terms of geographical size and population, Papua New Guinea is by far the biggest country in the Pacific Islands, a region increasingly central to United States’ strategic interests.

Along with neighbouring Solomon Islands, PNG is at the centre of a growing geopolitical contest between the US and its allies and China.

PNG has also long been wracked by domestic instability, which has depressed equitable economic growth and limited the country’s ability to play its natural role as regional leader and a bridge between the Pacific Islands and East Asia.

Despite PNG’s potential importance, the US has a light political footprint in the country, particularly when compared to Australia, making PNG’s designation as a focus country under the Global Fragility Action (GFA) an opportunity to dramatically scale up engagement.

The GFA calls for a long-term, whole-of-government approach to preventing conflict and mitigating violence.

GFA priority countries are based on three criteria:

  • US national security interests

  • the level of violence or fragility in the country; and

  • the commitment and capacity of the country and the likelihood that US assistance will have impact

Besides PNG, the US State Department has named Haiti, Libya, Mozambique and five West African coastal states as priority countries in which to implement the 10-year ‘US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability’.

PNG is a resource-rich, democratic nation - and no stranger to conflict.

On the surface, state institutions still reflect those of the former colonial administrator, Australia, but their depth and reach are limited, as are understandings and practices of governance.

Today, the highly diverse population of nine million faces several kinds of fragility ranging from community-based violence to the potential secession of Bougainville

As a country already at high risk from infectious diseases, the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed an already fragile health care system to breaking point.

Challenges resulting from insufficient resources have been exacerbated by extremely low vaccination rates. PNG is also at high risk of natural disasters, with frequent and often severe earthquakes, volcanic activity, mudslides and tsunamis.

Formal economic opportunities are limited. The vast majority of the population lives in rural areas and agriculture provides subsistence living for 85% percent of people.

The export of natural resources — namely minerals such as gold, copper and silver; natural gas; oil; and timber — makes up the lion’s share of PNG’s small formal economy.

In addition to causing environmental degradation, natural resource extraction — and the distribution of its benefits — has long been a point of tension and violent conflict.

In 1989, outrage over the Panguna copper mine sparked a civil war in Bougainville. It ended with a peace agreement in 2001.

More recently, elite squabbles over a multi-billion-dollar deal with Total and ExxonMobil for liquefied natural gas prompted then prime minister Peter O’Neill to step down in 2019.

Though a democracy with regular general elections, the robustness and effectiveness of governance institutions is thin.

O’Neill became prime minister in 2011 with a political manoeuvre the PNG supreme court deemed unconstitutional. Despite that he remained in office for eight years.

The 2017 general election was plagued by mismanagement, leading to outbreaks of violence. National elections will take place from 11-24 June.

The future of Bougainville has contributed to anxieties about PNG’s stability.

In 2019, 97% of Bougainville’s population voted in favor of independence in a referendum mandated by the 2001 peace agreement.

Because the referendum was non-binding and subject to ratification by the PNG parliament, there is uncertainty as to whether Bougainville’s clear choice will be honoured.

The prospect of Bougainville’s independence has raised the spectre of more secessionist movements and further breakup of the country, although this is considered to be unlikely.

The prevalence of crime and violence are hindering PNG’s economic growth.

Access to modern weapons and increased urban migration have escalated intercommunal violence. The rate of violence against women is amongst the highest in the world.

Sorcery-accusation related violence is a continuing threat to stability at community level.

Each of the tools envisioned in the ‘US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability’ could be deployed to address the indicators of fragility in PNG.

For example, development assistance and trade and investment opportunities could help to build a more robust, diversified and equitable formal economy, reducing dependence on natural resource extraction and the social tensions associated with it.

Humanitarian assistance would help enhance the PNG government’s capacity to respond to global shocks like the Covid pandemic.

Preventive diplomacy could be deployed to support a peaceful transition to independence in Bougainville and, at a grassroots level, to prevent village-based violence.

Various types of foreign assistance could be used to bolster PNG’s democratic institutions and strengthen traditional structures that support community resilience.

Three principles will be essential for the success of Global Fragility Action in PNG.

Emphasis on grassroots engagement: Conflict-sensitive grassroots engagement at the community level offers the greatest opportunity for creating change.

US funding will go further and will be more effective the closer it is to communities, where the state effectively does not exist.

However, implementers will need to proactively seek to work with church networks, which are key pillars of communities in PNG.

Realism about institutions: The US government should acknowledge that institutions are extremely weak in PNG and that politics centres on rent-seeking.

It should be cautious about forging systemic change, even over a 10-year planning horizon, keeping in mind that Australia has undertaken efforts to build institutions over decades.

Implementers should recognise that the incentives of political leaders may not align with leverage points for change, creating the risk that funds may not reach the right opportunities.

Coordination with partners: The US is fortunate to have its close ally Australia as the most important international actor in PNG, but this will also make early coordination with Australia essential to success.

The US should avoid areas of support where Australia is heavily engaged, such as in police and defence training and basic health and education, and instead find areas of comparative advantage.

Issues related to natural resource extraction, particularly mining, could be one such area.

Expanded US engagement in PNG will be welcomed by the government and its people and has the potential to be an important pillar of US engagement in the Pacific Islands region more generally.

The US retains enormous residual affection from World War II and has a great partner in Australia, while benefitting from not having the burden of being the major outside donor in PNG.

A potential multiplier for US government engagement could be coordination with ExxonMobil, PNG’s largest international investor, on community engagement and policy issues.

For a 10-year strategy to meaningfully contribute to stability it will require investment in education and dialogue in the US where, while increasingly focused on the Pacific Islands region for strategic reasons vis-à-vis China, Pacific literacy remains anaemic.

A deep understanding of PNG’s unique context will be critical to success.

Brian Harding joined the US Institute of Peace in May 2020 as a senior expert on Southeast Asia. He has more than 15 years experience in Southeast Asian affairs in government, think tanks and the private sector. Nicole Cochran is senior program specialist for USIP’s Asia Center


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Stephen Charteris

Hello Phil - Precisely, those are the issues that have to be overcome.

The approach we are taking requires a bit of a leap of faith and certainly a different way of seeing the problem. So please bear with me on this.

Our premise is that communities are their own centres of governance and they exhibit social capital. They value what they need and protect what belongs to them.

They have been supremely self-sufficient for centuries and, given the opportunity, are perfectly capable of addressing problems.

We know that government services are starved of funds and are woefully short of staff.

Our approach is to play to the strengths. While many communities are subsistence in nature, they have resources that can be capitalised.

Now think of island communities in a maritime province. They are expert fishermen but have no way of storing or transporting fish to markets where good prices are available.

They have no health services and rarely if ever get a visit from a health worker.

Our approach is to join the dots.

We empower women’s groups by installing solar powered freezers in their communities. They are the caregivers, and this is important. They have to pay for the equipment and that is important too.

We facilitate the loans to do this. They pay their fishermen an up front acceptable price. We facilitate this.

Money earned by community fishermen and women from the sale of fish to the women’s group is significant and is mobilised in the communities.

That income becomes a source of funds from which to remunerate home based service providers: women trained to provide essential first line services - first aid, antenatal monitoring and testing and treatment of uncomplicated malaria, vector control, net distribution etc. We will facilitate all of that.

We have the vessels to collect frozen produce from multiple communities and market it for higher prices in larger centres.

Net income from the sale of fish is used to repay equipment loans and once loans are retired that income is available to fund outreach services. The women's groups now 'own' these assets.

Outreach takes registered health workers to locations they could not have visited before.
They mentor home-based service providers and deliver higher end OP services like immunisation. We are providing the transport and logistical support to enable this.

If government cannot provide people, medicines or consumables, we partner with NGOs that can. They are lining up in number. But government is always in the loop and offered first bite of the cherry.

There is more detail in the fine print and plenty of moving parts beyond the classical health sector scenario.

It is a multi-sectoral intervention with a focus upon economic empowerment which is mobilised through women’s community health committees.

This is the key to facilitating sustainable community-based services supported by regular outreach.

Will communities support this? Certainly overwhelming support from all communities canvassed.

Is it capable of mitigating primary healthcare gaps and improve service coverage? Yes.

Are their precedents for this? Yes. Both economic and health sectors. But piecemeal and not linked as we have proposed.

Is it financially sustainable? At scale it is.

Lindsay F Bond

First impressions from seeing in 2008, at Oro Province the very many dilapidated or empty (or both), the structures once supposed and installed to operate as "village clinics", those edifices to the courage of folk becoming citizens in their own independent nation, they were at first the trophies. Some recognition of human need.
Buildings for delivery of education were a different matter, as of the services within. At the outset of many, request may have been presented to an available agency (cash strapped mission etc) and the actual service delivery came only when the community provided the buildings.

Few of the village clinics seem to have that initiation, namely a full commitment from the local community, as evidenced by the desire for and achievement of 'permanence' of materials. Procedures for maximising health service delivery have long been 'bastilled' in a manner of cleanliness with buildings aping that modelling.
No criticism of Rotary intended in saying an 'airdrop' of a health centre, any more than of national government in expectancy of this as 'rite procedure'. Help is appreciated. Longevity of usage is the open end.
As for national government, in 2008, I saw documentation of the then preferred building type, presumably the village clinic model having insufficient internal floor area, so the direction had become 'go larger'.

These few words do not a policy make, but for folk who have stayed with this comment, consider another model, one that is more ambulant. Here I do not suppose fleets of Asian 4WD vehicles but rather service deliveries leveraged on experience in the months of Covid-19, each scoped to the matter most prevalent and the terrain, and staffing.

Education is the word for systemisation of learning and evidently it is a whole of life challenge as a chore, more so at outcrops of enculturation which laden the national health expenditure with a local level mindedness that is tied to putting its eyes on trophies.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Stephen - The concept you describe sounds fascinating but I'm still trying to get my head around how it would actually work.

I've seen primary health care centres and village clinics where dedicated staff have not been paid for months and have not been supplied with basic medicines and often thought that if they actually owned or controlled these places it would all work so much better.

Just how could resources be fed into such places in a sustainable way given that they cannot control this aspect currently?

What would be a typical scenario under what you describe?

Stephen Charteris

I entirely agree with your observations that corruption throughout the public service is, to quote the late Sir Mekere Morauta, both systematic and systemic and the principal reason for the moribund state of services.

I believe it is fair to say that the property of the commons belongs to no one and is purloined at an appalling rate.

I have also observed that if you were to try to steal a pig, retribution is likely to be severe and swift.

My point is that while people may shrug their shoulders upon hearing that the local health manager abuses the use of the district health services vehicle, they will by comparison vigorously defend what they know to be theirs.

And that is a central tenet to my thesis that communities will defend property including services that they have worked for and own.

The model I propose then is not entirely reliant upon a functional government to deliver basic primary healthcare service at community level.

Certainly, services would be greatly enhanced if government delivered, but if it did not essential front line primary healthcare services would continue regardless, under the auspices of community effort and their own people trained to provide these services.

This concept was shared by the late deputy secretary for health, Dr Paison Dakulala who observed similar approaches to primary healthcare service delivery in other parts of the world.

I was fortunate enough to attend community meetings in rural settings with him and to discuss these ideas with him in some depth.

He admitted that the implications of this vision were beyond the capacity of the National Department of Health or its sub national agencies to implement alone, but that in partnership with communities and other actors this approach in PNG should work.

So, when I hear someone propose that the solution might involve getting closer to communities, I envision a holistic multi-sectoral approach to primary healthcare that is grounded in communities from the start and that is not entirely subject to the vagaries of government funding for its existence.

Higher level service provision, whether that be in health or education then becomes an integrated deliverable into the component that communities are capable of doing for themselves.

The design of community-funded and owned components of service provision has been the challenge to which I have applied myself for some years.

I am pleased to say that with a like-minded group of PNG health professionals, tradespeople, financial and community leaders this vision has now crystalised into a deliverable program.

Lindsay F Bond

Stephen's take on "approach" warrants respect and as I have at his other comments, I welcome his presentation.
Yet, blithe phraseology from USIP undermines structure of intent, so please look to "where the state effectively does not exist".
As the late Fr Albert Ririka of Gona would say, "put your eyes on them."
Such blithe an aside seems akin to constructs the British had in the 1780s.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Your sensible ideas and optimism are laudable Stephen but the elephant in the room is corruption, not just at the national level but at the local level too.

For such a sensible system to work corruption has to be removed from the equation. Successive PNG governments have shown they are incapable of dealing with corruption and are, in fact, heavily enmeshed in it themselves.

Before anything can work equitably in PNG corruption has to be heavily constrained and law and order given precedence.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Alan, it's a good job then that nobody takes the USIP seriously, including the people who set it up.


Stephen Charteris

Lindsay, yes and no. The authors of this paper are quite correct in their assumption that greater effectiveness will be achieved by working “closer” to communities.

Connecting with community leadership to assist them to derive solutions to their needs is an essential way forward.

The challenge is to ensure these interventions integrate with government services through a government community partnership to deliver practical solutions and not become an alternative stand-alone service.

Empowering communities to strengthen resilience to the effects of climate change, improve food security and play a practical role in facilitating the basic health and education services they need is a major part of the equation going forward.

This requires a workable partnership. An understanding that communities are the untapped human resource that holds the key to extending what are in essence technical services all the way to the base where they are needed most.

A number of senior health managers I have spoken to agree with this approach.

The government already encourages partnerships with the private sector, NGOs, churches, and civil society groups. It needs to take the next step and engage with community leadership, both men and women.

This has to be approached with care and sensitivity. I would suggest working closely with government administrators, planners and with community leaders and spokespersons in the same room from the onset to ensure the needs of all are aired and the goal of a workable partnership is not lost sight of.

Government holds the key to delivering the pathways to human capital development. Communities are the land which defines a person’s identity upon which 85% of the population live. If the starting point recognises these fundamental building blocks the idea has enormous merit.

I am a supporter of this approach and believe it has the potential to help close the gap between underfunded and understaffed government services and long-suffering communities. It won’t be easy or quick, but with good will on both sides I am confident it will work.

I would like to acknowledge the point made by Professor Tidwell who has noted that the United States Institute of Peace are a think tank and not USAID. I take heart from his assertion that “meanwhile the actual work is being quietly considered by USAID.”

Lindsay F Bond

The co-authors write: "US funding will go further and will be more effective the closer it is to communities, where the state effectively does not exist."

This notion that a donor might bypass the state in providing aid to grassroots communities and that this might be legitimate is ill-founded.

Without express approval and recognition (and quite possibly bribe-receiving) by the sovereign state of PNG (independent and free) the aid will be seen as an intrusion and in all likelihood not transpire.

It's not only Putin who believes he ought to control according to his own conception of affairs. These airs of superiority are everywhere and the outcome is too often infliction and infection.

Alan Tidwell

Just a quick comment on the United States Institute of Peace (USiP). They are not part of the US executive branch and have no policy-making role. They are a congressionally funded entity whose main task is promoting research and understanding on conflicts. Their most meaningful role is to promote dialogue. A well known scholar on Bougainville, Anthony Reagan, did a fellowship at USIP when he wrote his book, Light Intervention. USIP has no role in development policy nor any meaningful role in how USAID do their job. Take issue with the blog piece produced by USIP all you want, but don't overstate USIP's role. Meanwhile, the actual work is being quietly considered by USAID.

Stephen Charteris

Two preposterous statements to take issue with.

"The US should avoid areas of support where Australia is heavily engaged, such as in police and defence training and basic health and education."

Hang on a moment. Did they actually say basic health and education? They must be living in an alternative reality. The many universe theory is alive and well.

"A potential multiplier for US government engagement could be coordination with ExxonMobil, PNG’s largest international investor, on community engagement and policy issues."

Oh really? First rule of community engagement in PNG is to keep mining companies right out of it. No exceptions. Exxon Mobil gave us Rex Tillerson. Enough said.

As you and Phil have observed, this was a most revelatory piece on US development policy. The revelation being that of a naive, appallingly researched and outdated thesis - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

"Implementers should recognise that the incentives of political leaders may not align with leverage points for change, creating the risk that funds may not reach the right opportunities."

That's one of the most convoluted definitions of corruption I've come across.

"The US should avoid areas of support where Australia is heavily engaged, such as in police and defence training and basic health and education, and instead find areas of comparative advantage.

"Issues related to natural resource extraction, particularly mining, could be one such area."

Australia is up to its neck in "resource extraction".

"A potential multiplier for US government engagement could be coordination with ExxonMobil, PNG’s largest international investor, on community engagement and policy issues."

Now we know where they are coming from.

At least they recognise that "grassroots engagement at the community level offers the greatest opportunity for creating change."

Beware of Yanks bearing gifts I think.

There were also a number of schoolboy howlers in the piece that, for reasons of factual accuracy, were edited out. If this tosh is typical of the intellectual basis of US policy on PNG and the Pacific, China looks very sporting - KJ

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