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PNG youth is trapped in the web of modernity


KUNDIAWA - Youth in Papua New Guinea is a time bomb that our country is adding in its drift towards anarchy.

Even as far back as the 2011 national census, 60% of PNG’s estimated population of 7.3 million was aged under 25.

It is clear that if the PNG government does not focus on the youth population now, the future prospects of the whole country will be saturated by failure.

Few school leavers are able to find gainful employment. Many leave their villages for the towns and cities hoping to find work. There is no work for most and poverty and crime follow.

One way to solve the problem would be to recruit more personnel for the army and police force.

This way these young people would earn a living and contribute to improving the country’s law and order situation.

But with perhaps as many as six or seven million people aged under 25, it would need more than recruitment into the disciplined services to solve the unemployment problem.

Youths could also be involved in earning a living in agriculture and small and medium sized enterprises.

This is a good idea but would require planning, preparation and budgeting beyond the capacity of our country.

Partly because of the ‘youth problem’, PNG is now in the midst of a time of spiritual and moral breakdown.

The growth of secular humanism, challenges to social cohesion and the decline of cultural values and norms are accompaniments to modernisation and a society that has become material-oriented.

We also see problems related to what I term a ‘culture of death’.

These include drug addiction, gender-based violence, violence related to sanguma (witchcraft), killings related to elections and the growth of cults.

The plague of tribal warfare, especially in the Highlands, destroys life and properties and displaces people in dehumanised conditions.

They also become victims of the negative impact of digital and social media. These are other elements that promote criminal activities and antisocial behaviour.

The almost total breakdown of health services has accelerated death and long-term illness resulting from lifestyle diseases and infectious diseases like Covid and tuberculosis have become more common and more difficult to treat and manage.

Our youth is caught up in this complexity and disorientation.

They are not only confronted by these problems without solutions and an identity crisis triggered by the move from traditional to modern society but they can also find no means of escape.

The inevitable outcomes include addiction to alcohol and drugs and an explosion of crime.

The root cause of these problems lies within our society failing to deal with growth and change.

We tend to respond with our irrational thinking, misconceived attitudes and aggressive behaviour.

In seeking to define the root cause, I am led to an understanding that dealing with these problems will not transform or solve anything until we restore the human beings who create these iniquities.

Indeed, focusing on personal growth should be the aim of any problem-solving model endeavouring to reduce harm and crime.

There also needs to be an accompanying focus on addressing the ‘culture of death’.

The crimes we see in PNG are clear symptoms of a society that is sick. The helplessness felt by our youth is also a clear symptom of a society that is sick.

I believe that most of our youth know they have problems and know some of the solutions (get a job) but lack an understanding of how to give effect to the solutions.

Their problems all stem from their lives lacking meaning and purpose, and we – their kin, their leaders, their society, their government - are not helping them with what they need.

The crisis brought on by finishing school and not being able to progress further causes many young people to question who they are and what life means.

This is an identity crisis and it often undermines self-confidence. Youths don’t have trust in themselves, they feel they are worthless, inferior and without hope.

They don’t know where they going and they roam through life aimlessly.

An education system that was once viewed with great passion begins to lose its meaning for young people when they find it leads nowhere.

Our traditional values, norms, obligations, beliefs and heritage are disappearing.

The ability of families, kinships and clans to mobilise young people for work and celebration is dying out.

Today few youths go to church for spiritual and moral guidance and to learn what is wrong or right, good or bad, evil or holy.

Secular humanism has taken over from traditional spirituality and moral values, and our youths don’t seem to value themselves as human beings who have dignity.

Our youth, and our country, find themselves trapped in the web of modernity which brings inability and discontent, and seemingly lacks the leadership, understandings and resources required to escape.


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Paul Oates

I’m not sure a concentrated effort increase policing and law and order will fix the problem. That like closing the banis gate after the pig has escaped.

I remember writing a paper during my Magistrates Course in 1972 and suggesting a potential way forward for PNG youth.

There needed to be an official national young person’s organisation that could be available for school leavers to join and undertake community service.

Distinctive uniforms, and a lunch provided by say local councils, with the whole set up run along national lines with trained and responsible leaders appointed.

It wouldn’t cost much, and it would provide challenges and public spirit when it is most needed. Perhaps even a public liability insurance scheme could be contemplated at a later date?

Useful references for future work opportunities and recognised awards for good service would add incentives along with public recognition for ethical behaviour.

The paper was well reviewed by none other than Hank Nelson who wrote a supportive comment on the bottom of the paper. “Now you’re talking! (Em Nau!)” he said.

Service organisations and philanthropic organisations could provide responsible leaders and administrative assistance. If the concept was to start in a small way and build up momentum, there is no reason why it wouldn’t work.

The opportunity is still there. All it would take is initiative, leadership and support from the community being assisted.

Stephen Charteris

Ian’s comment is correct. PNG youth is most emphatically not happy.

No jobs, little or no prospect of employment and no services. If you live in a rural setting your future is likely to be more of what you may have gone to school to get away from.

If you live in an urban setting, the house you grew up in with your brothers and sisters is likely to remain the family home for you all and the next generation of children as well. If not addressed this is a recipe for social upheaval.

The primary responsibility of government is to implement polices best suited to meet the needs of the people. Can successive PNG governments say they have tried to do this? I fear not.

With the possible exception of the Namaliu and Morauta administrations there has been little attempt to put socially responsible policies in place. Parliamentarians have placed political survival and personal enrichment above other considerations.

With few exceptions, leaders cannot escape the allegation that they have deliberately played to the fears and prejudices of their electorates instead of seeking harmony and progress towards the greater good in a changing world.

A look at the condition of education and health infrastructure and the personal assets of the political nobility is sufficient to tell the story of the past half century and the probable trajectory of the next as well.

It is time for the PNG public to awaken from a long slumber and elect leaders who can get their sh*t together.

Time for present and future leaders to put petty politics and self-enrichment aside and work for the collective good of somewhere between nine and twenty million people before it is too late and the nation becomes ungovernable.

That process starts with an up to date and credible census followed by a concerted effort to respond with policies and actions that address the needs of a long suffering and duped population.

No quick riches can flow from that process - just a steady climb in social and economic indicators where enriching the quality of life while protecting the environment is paramount.

Papua New Guinea, O arise all you sons and daughters of this land before it is too late.

Ian Poole

Brilliant article, Philip, but also highly disturbing, because its starting-point is ancient - the 2011 census!

The only reason that we're finally talking about having a census now is because the dreaded Australians have offered to pay for it.

Our political class has endless capacity for elections, though, because they're such fun after every five year period of under-achievement.

Census's are so boring. Who wants them anyway? Our pollies know what's required, 'cos they are uniquely informed by "their people".

Slush funds will do the job, simple!
Er, no-o-o, we're still going backwards, aren't we.

Recently, Kumul Cons Holdings paid a dividend of eight million to government. Sounds good, but it was reportedly the first since 2014.

Hmmmm. I thought our LNG was going to solve all our problems...

Where's the sovereign wealth fund? Dunno, but a plane-load of wantoks descended on the big mining festival in Sydney recently, anxious to have yet more billions invested in our natural resources.

Sorry, but money, money, money does not, by itself, solve problems.

Our young people are watching all this play out and they are "not happy, bos", not happy at all.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's a very well thought out article Philip and is particularly salient given the probability that Papua New Guinea's population is much greater than official estimates claim.

I'm reminded of the extensive anthropological literature about social change in PNG that was being written in the late 1950s into the 1960s. Ian Hogbin's 1958 volume, Social Change, is a classic example. It was on the curriculum for new kiaps at the Australian School of Pacific Administration when I went there.

These studies identified many of the causes and possible responses to social change. With such a body of work no government in PNG, before or after independence, can claim not to have been informed and warned.

Your suggestion about bolstering the police and military also reminded me of the role correctional services played in educating and preparing people for modernity prior to independence.

Many police and other public servants who graduated from their time in incarceration were drawn from the gaols prior to independence.

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