It’s not often that a country blessed with deep reserves of oil, gas and minerals misses every single one of the Millennium Development Goals. But this is what happened to Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country where diversity is woven deeply across its habitat, language, people and culture.
It’s certainly a long way – geographically and metaphorically – from 22 Whitehall in London, the headquarters of the UK’s Department for International Development, a fact that Roy Trivedy knows all too well. Trivedy, who is on a four-year leave of absence from the department to serve as the United Nation’s representative in PNG, has witnessed first-hand the huge contrasts that exist within its borders. But while he concedes that huge challenges still linger, he remains optimistic about the country’s future, arguing that its potential and excitement is tangible.
“It is easy to feel passionate about a country like Papua New Guinea,” he says. “I have worked in many countries – India, Malawi, Mozambique, Central Asia and Tanzania – but here there has been so much done, but also so much still to do. The real priority is understanding where to focus our time and attention in order to achieve the biggest impact.”
All hands to the PNG deck
Trivedy’s is hardly a lone voice in the wind. There are numerous development agencies deployed across PNG – including 14 UN agencies based in the country. “As the secretary general’s representative I have to keep an overview of the work of all UN agencies and make sure it is coordinated but I serve as head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in the country as well,” he says.
He goes on to explain that UNDP focuses on several specific areas across the country – from strengthening governance and peace building, environmental protection, disaster risk management to addressing social exclusion. Clearly, some 40 years since its independence, there is no shortage of work to get on with.
“The country celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and it was a time to take stock and see what has been achieved and what hasn’t,” he says. “It is one of the most naturally endowed countries in the world and is one of very few that has enjoyed double digit economic growth for 14 successive years, admittedly from a low base. But while at one level the economy is growing, when you look at how that growth has been translated into the wellbeing of people there is a far more difficult story to tell.”
Partly this is due to geography. The country may be blessed with world-class resources but inland its volcanoes and dense rainforest mean that modern infrastructure has yet to penetrate huge areas. Most of its population – about 80+% – live in rural areas and many clans have limited exposure to modern facilities, including access to electricity.
“There are remote parts of the country where there are very few government services,” says Trivedy. “PNG is the same size as Germany, with a population of just under 10 million, and has the world’s third largest rainforest. But it is also a country that is struggling with different transitions. One of these is a transition from a very traditional society – in remote parts of the country there are people who still hunt for their livelihoods with bows and arrows. There are also 800+ languages used and more than 1,000 different clans. Part of the challenge facing the country’s leaders is building up a truly national identity and helping people to feel that it is not just about local needs, but those that are facing the country as a whole.”
Public service priorities
When PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975, it could count on a small highly motivated generation of public servants to help move the country forward. Unfortunately, there has been insufficient investment in their successors, which means that today the PNG government is facing up to a skills and experience gap.
“With people retiring, it is fast becoming a huge public services challenge,” says Trivedy. “And as a result, for many citizens the little confidence they had in the government services is being eroded. In the last few years, more money has been directed to the grassroots via Members of Parliament. On one hand this has led to some gains – more money is getting to some districts – but of course, it increases the potential for corruption and the executive branch is being bypassed.”
And this funding is hardly unlimited either. “Despite its abundant natural resources, the country is facing a fiscal challenge,” says Trivedy. “This is because the steep drop in oil prices has severely impacted the revenue streams. It means that over the next couple of years, at a time when citizen expectations are increasing, there is far less money available – even for the government’s priority areas of infrastructure, law and order, health and education.”
This means that – for the immediate future at least – PNG will be relying on non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and other development partners to help it accomplish many of its objectives including delivering services. “The immediate priority is to maintain stability,” concludes Trivedy. “If we can do that then this is a country that is well placed to thrive in the future. But we need to make good choices now. If we do so, then we will really be able to translate the country’s wealth into wellbeing for all its people.”
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