BRIAN HARDING & NICOLE COCHRAN
| 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