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PNG poverty: Somare shifts the blame

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1 October 2009 15:57

Laurence Chandy is a Research Associate at the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings.

Al Jazeera's illuminating interview with PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare highlights many of the misconceptions which undermine the government's approach to development.

Repeating his earlier mantra, Somare denied that poverty was a problem in PNG, with the possible exception of urban migrants. The truth is that poverty by any standard measure remains rife. My back of the envelope estimate, as appears in my new Lowy Analysis, has extreme poverty (defined by the international poverty line of $1 a day) at more than 30% in 2008 – that's a higher percentage than in 1996 when the last completed household survey was undertaken.

Furthermore, poverty is certainly not limited to cities. Not only is the incidence of poverty higher in rural areas, the rural poor are found further below the poverty line than their urban counterparts and experience lower growth rates. The Prime Minister might consider taking a leaf out of Emperor Haile Selassie's eccentric, if ultimately doomed policy of arranging surprise visits out of the capital to understand better what is happening in his country.

Somare's views on urban migrants are generally unsympathetic. He blames them for the recent unrest against Chinese businesses and criticises them for migrating in the first place. I would argue that migratory trends, while difficult to manage, perform an important role. Eradicating poverty in PNG relies on the connection between the poor and the rest of the economy being improved. At present, this connection is weak, which explains why the 'poverty dividend' from economic growth is so low.

On current trends, the most likely solution to Papua New Guinea's rural poverty will come not from the government's extension of public services and economic opportunity into remote areas, but from the poor moving to more prosperous areas. To coin a phrase: if you can't bring the economy to the poor, bring the poor to the economy.

The Prime Minister's answers are weakest on the issue of government effectiveness. He is unable to explain why public funding doesn't reach its intended target, other than to blame corruption among public servants, while absolving the political class of any wrong-doing. The real explanation here is the scandalous absence of monitoring and accountability mechanisms, a reliance on defunct service delivery systems, and the need for much greater budgetary focus. Given that the bulk of district-level expenditure is overseen by politicians and that no effort is made to account for these funds, politicians are undoubtedly part of problem.  

With a decision on the LNG project just around the corner, and the prospect of rapid growth and booming revenues a distinct possibility, now is the time for the government to face up to the country's poverty problem and to think seriously about the role it must play in ensuring the expanding economy delivers for the poor.

Photo by Flickr user *TreMichLan*, used under a Creative Commons license.

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