Corruption is suffocating economic growth
Marape says PNG's prospects now look strong

Real change in PNG must start at the base

"I wonder if the consultants ever get beyond the boundary of Port Moresby or any of the provincial capitals? Have these people spent even a month living in a community?"



CAIRNS - As Chris Overland writes, corruption is an insidious cancer, and nothing will change at the top until outcomes are changed at the base.

I think it’s fair to say that elected representatives are a reflection of the expectations of the people who vote for them.

From the outside, if politicians are seen to be on the take, you can be fairly sure their supporters are happy with the results.

There is an axiom associated with maladministration: nothing will change at the top unless something changes at the bottom.

Traders of any ethnicity are able to operate in the most unlikely places because the local 'bikman' has enabled it to be so.

How else do you think store goods can make it safely to such locations without being 'diverted' along the way?

And from the perspective of customers in these locations, the store represents progress courtesy of the local member or a prominent supporter.

Let me look at a hypothetical government agency which, from the outside, appears to have competent and knowledgeable senior staff and looks like a success story:

The seven senior staff are drawn from every corner of the country and very experienced.

But each of them has a strong relationship with their own wantok group providing a direct connection between the external group and the public sector pie.

So from each senior executive extends a pipeline of government contracts for friends and influencers.

A lucrative flow of funds is thus directed to particular groups in various parts of the country.

And woe betide the appointment any 'new broom’ who believes things can be changed.

As for the freight train of consultants coming and going, this is just a game for their offshore employers who are also on government contracts.

The question has to be asked, is there a momentum for change and if so where is it?

Well, to find such momentum, we have to get our boots on and go way beyond Port Moresby and the heavily-populated PNG towns.

We keep going until coming to a place where another mother has just died in childbirth, another child under five has succumbed to a vaccine-preventable disease and the last schoolteacher packed her books and left 15 years ago.

It is here in rural PNG that we find a majority of the 60% of the PNG population who are under the age of 25.

These people need but don’t get income and basic services and have given up on anyone helping them except a well-connected relative in town.

The picture is very clear and very bleak.

The achievement of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals is mixed.

Goals 1-8 have gone almost nowhere. Goal number 2, a key pillar, is the pledge to leave no one behind. It may as well be a dream.

I understand that bilateral partners are primarily focused on supporting counterpart government structures in the expectation that strengthening systems will lead ultimately to services reaching the base.

What I do not understand is, in the face of 50 years of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, with indicators still going in the wrong direction, why bilateral partners still believe ‘reaching the base’ is going to work.

I wonder if the consultants ever get beyond the boundary of Port Moresby or any of the provincial capitals? Have these people spent even a month living in a community?

Have they witnessed what happens when a distraught mother in a difficult labour cannot get the most basic assistance she needs?

Have they ever carried a deceased child to its final resting place because a $10 vaccine was never administered?

Or stood at the graves with the relatives of these poor people and heard what they have to say about the government and its services?

If they had, I would venture they would not put up their hand so easily for another top-down governance-strengthening assignment paid for by the Australian taxpayer.

I believe they might start protesting loudly about the useless game which we delude ourselves is making a difference when demonstrably it is not.

They would then stop wringing their hands about corruption being the root cause of the failings of the systems they and other development partners had created.

The momentum for change is alive and well in PNG and it starts at the base – not at the top.

The power for change vests with the people at the base who desperately need it and who willingly cling to anything and anyone that brings a modicum of benefit, be it even a tradestore run by the gentleman from Fujian province.

When are we going to get the message that, in the absence of an equally concerted push at the base, our models for change won’t work?

PNG needs a massive effort at community level to empower and leave no one behind.

It needs to empower people to be the managers of the outcomes they desire at the only level of governance that matters, their community.

It needs to develop the overarching mechanisms that make communities at least partially the answer to the delivery of basic services.

Dreaming? No, it has been done. But never on the scale required nor with the financial support it requires.

Until we support this model of development, there will be little or momentum for the outcomes everybody desires.


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