Papua New Guinea has mixed experiences of globalisation, Benedict Y Imbun writes.
Since Papua New Guinea achieved political independence 41 years ago, the country has been absorbed into the global economy. But that has had mixed results for the nation, which is still struggling to formulate policies that work to its advantage.
Just as Papua New Guineans were either superficially aware or oblivious to the significance of the colonial economy prior to 1975, their post-independence adaptation to globalisation has had limited benefits. Put simply, they have failed to properly grasp what it means for them, and how to use it to their advantage.
At best, the country has been able to articulate legislation and policies aimed at encouraging foreign (direct) capital investment, particularly in extractive industries such as mining. At its worst, PNG has been unable to deal effectively with the by-products of globalisation, it has not been shrewd or economical in its management of the opportunities or pitfalls globalisation presents, and it has failed to address rising law and order issues, which arise partly through social issues like poverty and illiteracy, and competition in the labour market. Despite an abundance of natural resources, many of which are unexplored, urban and rural social disturbances have adversely affected businesses and scared away potential investors.
In PNG, globalisation-fuelled international investment ushered in the huge Bougainville copper mine in the 1960s and thereafter a series of large – such as Ok Tedi, Porgera and Lihir cooper and gold mines – and medium-scale mining developments, such as Misima, Tolukuma and Hidden Valley. This has been supplemented by investments in oil and gas, agriculture, forestry, and fishing in the last three decades.
It has not been a smooth ride, however. Most Papua New Guineans want development in their country, but they don’t effectively grasp what it means, nor how to formulate policy to attract and manage it effectively, and the government has failed to articulate the benefits and challenges it offers. In the face of half-hearted vision statements of successive governments, Papua New Guineans have reacted hesitantly to the development mantra, to the detriment of the country’s investment and development potential. Inappropriate developments are one example, the fact that benefits from PNG’s successful exports fail to reach the people is another.
PNG development goals as the Medium Term Development Policy (MTDP) 2004-10 and such key investment policies as the Look North Policy have been only words on paper, without any meaningful effort made by politicians to inform and familiarise the population about them, let alone bureaucrats.
Nor have they touched on the country’s development issues – the omission of real issues such as unemployment, gender equality and culture and heritage in the MTDP has astounded critics.
The lack of evaluation of these policies is also cause for concern. Politicians commonly misunderstand development goals, squandering scarce development funds on less important areas. Allan Bird, adviser to the government’s Vision 2050 (the more recent collection of visionary development ideals), confirmed the politicians’ deficiencies as he lamented the country’s miserable failing to achieve the global Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The average Papua New Guinean has little knowledge of any government’s development attempts, or how policies could work to the people’s advantage.
It’s a confused landscape, compounded by an absence of populist development goals, illiteracy, poverty and ineffective political leadership, and it informs Papua New Guineans’ reactions to development and investors.
The lack of unified commitment and aspirations for development is a result of successive PNG governments’ failure to effectively communicate and advocate their policies to the population.
Respective governments’ own economic development choices, such as prioritising capital intensive hard rock and hydrocarbon extraction of resources over popular agricultural development, have compounded the issue of unclear development priorities, and led to a diversity of approaches to investment.
In the process, many people struggle to meaningfully contribute to development and sound economic growth. The result is a population that is lost in making sense of its country’s aspirations, and a nation-state that lures foreign investors to make up for the failure of local initiatives. Add to this leaders and technocrats who offer no development visions of any significance to the bulk of the country’s population located in the rural areas.
This is compounded by a near-absence of a local, aspirational lower-middle class, and the timely or untimely arrival of Asian entrepreneurs via the Look North policy to fill the gap.
Some people might argue that a class of local entrepreneurs is still emerging, but there is nothing to compete with or challenge the ever-entrenching Asian business concentration.
Given the lack of leadership in issues such as growth and development, and the growing anti-Asian sentiments that have resulted in social upheavals in recent years, it is imperative for the government to come up with a bold and new populist approach to arrest the situation.
For any appropriate national development policy aimed at appealing to the broad sections of the country, several essential factors should be present.
First and foremost, the government ought to acknowledge the failures of past development plans such the as PNG Government Development Strategic Plan 2010 and various Medium Term Development Plans, and identify and acknowledge successes before shaping new policies.
Policies ought to reflect prevailing issues and challenges, backed by reliable information and data, and be simple and easy for the entire population to understand.
Communication is also the key, and initiatives should be effectively communicated not only via the bureaucracy but also through mass media and educational, civil, NGO, church, and other appropriate avenues to maximise the message across the country, including more remote areas.
To add legitimacy to projects, politicians and bureaucrats should allocate resources to the priorities earmarked, and advocate for them convincingly.
It should be a constant process, with systematic reviews of the policies at all spheres of local, provincial, and national government. Unless the country analyses its development policies and tailors these to reflect PNG’s unsophisticated nature in its messages, the people will always struggle to be part of a development path, and become a missing partner in the development trinity of state, business, and community — regardless of the origin of the investors.