By JOHN VAREY
DURING the last 40 years since independence Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been characterised as “paradise in poverty”. More recently PNG has been seen as a “rich beggar”, begging around the globe for more loan although the country is described as “an island of gold, floating on a sea of oil and powered by gas”.
Undeniably, PNG is filthy rich with minerals, oil, gas, abundant fisheries and one of the most significant areas of largely intact tropical forest in the world. PNG has the potential to become the first black richest nation in the world and yet poverty and national debt currently remains a pressing national issue.
Despite the abundant riches in natural resources, despite a strong growth in the country’s large extractive industries – drawing upon substantial reserves of gold, oil, gas, copper, silver and timber – widespread rural and urban poverty persists and escalate with the passage of time. With the increase in the country’s population and escalating number of unemployed school leavers compounded with urban migration propelled both rural and urban poverty.
I was surprised to hear from Sir Julius Chan, one of the founding father of our nation and two times prime minister of PNG during the launch of his book titled “Playing the Game” that 50% of PNG population are living below the poverty line. All these time I was thinking it was 40%. Now in my educated estimate, the percentage is above fifty percent of our population living below the poverty line.
The international standard which is used to measure poverty line is that if one cannot afford to “earn” USD$1 per day which is equivalent to K3.50, he or she is living below the poverty line. Which means that if you count ten men and women walking on the streets of Gordon’s in Port Moresby, five to six out of ten do not have K3.50 in their pockets or bilume or are not able to earn K3.50 a day. Such is a frightening reality and a scary thought given its social implications.
Whilst PNG is yet to experience acute poverty where people are dying of starvation as experienced in other African and Indian countries because of our social safety net, there exist a prevalent and persistent levels of “relative poverty” as well. Characteristics of relative poverty are these. If I cannot afford to pay school fees for my children, cloth my children, adequately feed my children, I am in relative poverty. If I cannot have access to three meals a day, if I cannot have excess to electricity, if I cannot have access to quality water supply at my door steps, I am in relative poverty and many more. If one is to look from the perspective of relative poverty, more than 70% of the population are living in relative poverty.
The most pressing question is, why is PNG so rich and yet so poor? Why is PNG so rich and yet more than 50% of the population are living below the poverty line and 70% living in relative poverty? What is really the heart of the problem here?
The problem PNG faced as a nation is not social, neither political nor economic. The heart of the problem is one of LEADERSHIP. Not just another leadership but leadership with a sense of ethics and morality. Leadership with wisdom and vision, leadership with the people at heart and a keen interest to see the citizens achieve financial freedom and social prosperity. Leadership with pragmatic policies to make the nation become poverty free and to make the country become a lender and not a borrower. Leadership with the ability to make wise decisions and leadership who is able to make better deals for PNG. It is leadership that will make or break the society and the nation.
A case in point is Singapore. They gained independence in 1965 and PNG in 1975 with a mere ten year difference. Singapore has no oil, gas, copper, gold, forest and marine resources whereas PNG have in abundance. Yet the GDP of Singapore is second only to Japan. They have quality health and education services. All citizens have access to decent accommodation. Singapore rank number one in Asia as corrupt free country and ranked 4th around the globe as corrupt free country. Consequently, it attracted numerous 3600 multinational corporations investing in Singapore which triggered the Asian Tiger. Singapore is declared a poverty free country. Singapore secret to social and economic prosperity was leadership with a heart and a vision. Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, has a heart and a vision to bring Singapore to where it is today.
Leadership in PNG since independence clearly lack the heart and a vision to lead the nation into prosperity. The last 40 years since independence has been characterized by an “ideological void”. There is no ruling idea by which PNG can draw its national psyche, motivation, influence and inspiration to chart its development path into the future. Since independence PNG has unconsciously and ignorantly adopted even a system of government and economic system that is totally foreign to Melanesian principles, values and ideas. After 40 years, we have failed to address these fundamental flaws because of a clear lack of leadership with vision.
Not only PNG lack leadership with a heart and a vision to lead but also, successive leaders since independence have failed to negotiate better deals from our rich natural resources to stimulate social and economic growth and to lift our people out of poverty. For example. If you look the Oil and Mining Act, it clearly states that these national resources are owned by the people through the state. The state in the very act of issuing mining license to a developer, the state sold ownership of the resource to a multinational corporation through a stroke of a pen. The state then went around the world to borrow money to buy a minimal shares into what they already. What utter nonsense! The state will then have to negotiate with the landowners on how to divide the shares. Foreign investors have taken all the meat and left bare bones for the State and landowners to fight over. This evil legislation has not been changed. Where is leadership in this? Consequently, we are so rich and yet so poor because leaders have failed to negotiate better deals for the country.
After 40 years of independence, PNG should be matured and learn from the past failures and better position our country into the future. It is my fervent hope that visionary leaders will rise up to the time to lay a firm ideological foundation, institute systematic and structural changes with pragmatic policies and an aggressive implementation plan to lift PNG out of poverty, making PNG to become a lender and enabling its citizens to enjoy living in Paradise.
John B Varey (BASW) UPNG, (BATHEO) PAU
For more information or discussion I can be contacted on 72759918 or email [email protected]