I’m glad my paper, Papua New Guinea: Old Challenges for New Leaders, has triggered debate on The Interpreter about PNG’s future. I agree with James Batley and Stuart Schaefer that thinking about development in Papua New Guinea needs a long-term perspective. I am also keenly aware that I am Australian and that ultimately the responsibility for shaping the future of my country’s nearest neighbour rests with the leaders and the citizens of Papa New Guinea.
The ideas I put forward in my paper were drawn from discussions I have had with young Papua New Guineans for the last three years but they are just that; ideas. Developing policy priorities and determining the relative affordability of those priorities into the future is a matter for Papua New Guinea. I hope that the paper might generate more discussion among PNG’s younger generation and emerging leaders about their own ideas for changing the future.
I agree with James and Stuart that Papua New Guinea has a 'small quantum of money available' and this is a serious problem that I did not address in my paper. But PNG also has a vast endowment of resources that gives the nation long term revenue options that are not available to many developing countries and certainly not to any of PNG’s Pacific neighbours.
I’ve heard a number of development experts say Papua New Guinea would be better off if it didn’t have an extractives industry. Possibly. But that industry has provided education, training and employment opportunities for thousands of young Papua New Guineans who would not have otherwise had those opportunities. The country’s resource wealth is a factor driving corruption but countries without a vast resource base also suffer from corruption. Further, if Papua New Guinea is able to diversify its economy, by measures such as developing its agricultural sector, a broader tax and revenue base would be a possibility. The 'small quantum of money available' could grow in another generation or two.
In addition, the priorities I suggested the next generation of leaders focus on in law and order, infrastructure and national education were deliberately not large-scale in nature and do not require expenditure that a future government of Papua New Guinea could not afford. Cooperation with international partners and the private sector could make a focus on new initiatives more affordable.
James and Stuart say they are suspicious of circuit breakers. Of course there is no one solution to solving all of PNG’s development challenges that has somehow remained undiscovered.
Circuit breakers, however, are not only possible in the future; they have already opened up development paths in Papua New Guinea. Regulatory change in the telecommunications sector allowed the Irish company Digicel to enter the market in 2007. The introduction of competition to the sector revolutionised telecommunications in PNG. It has delivered mobile phones to half the population, including to people in remote areas who had never had access to a landline or travelled to an urban area. Broadband services have followed and, while not yet as widespread, have opened up many new options for small business and education. Access to mobile phones has enabled rural dwellers to be in regular touch with their relatives in urban centres, allowing more timely transfers of cash or assistance with business development. Wide access to social media platforms via mobile phones has enabled people across the nation to access information, share opinions, and learn from each other, without ever owning a computer.
Even if future 'circuit breakers' are not as revolutionary in nature as the telecommunications example, if they open up new development paths in only a few population centres, they are still worthy of the name. Achieving small wins in PNG is important. They give the population hope. They also provide examples of workable change useful for leaders across all sectors who are making sustained efforts to achieve long-term development gains.
James and Stuart say my analysis takes for granted that Papua New Guinea’s leaders value the strength of national institutions, and assumes that what constrains them is the availability of financial resources. I disagree. PNG’s current leaders have been willing to actively devalue institutions by not respecting the role or authority of the courts, the transparency and accountability agencies, and even national departments of health and education. Incidentally, this phenomenon — of devaluing independent national institutions — is not unique to Papua New Guinea as this UK analysis explains.
The reason I suggested in my paper that PNG’s next generation of leaders will be under pressure to strengthen national institutions is that emerging leaders are already committing to respect and rebuild the institutions they believe are being undermined. What has impressed me over the last three years of working with emerging leaders is how different their values are from those projected by that the current generation of leaders. Young people in Papua New Guinea, probably like young people in every country, appear to be motivated more by a sense of fairness, justice and integrity than they are by building personal wealth. They seem more determined to use their skills to make a positive contribution to their community (in both urban and rural settings) than to accede to positions of power or securing high paying jobs. But, unlike most young people in developed countries, emerging leaders in Papua New Guinea are acutely aware of the responsibility they, as educated and capable people, bear for building and developing their nation. They value the importance of rule of law, the constitution, and the independence of the nation’s institutions. They may not be able to prevent the damage being done now but they deserve a chance to repair and rebuild in the future.