Every cloud has a silver lining: Papua New Guinean understandings of corruption and anti-corruption

On Wednesday, 13 November, Transparency International PNG launched a report that outlines how Papua New Guineans understand corruption and anti-corruption efforts. The report, entitled Papua New Guinean Understandings of Corruption (available here) draws on findings from a household survey. Over 1,800 people participated in the study, with interviews conducted between 2010 and 2011 in nine out of the country’s 22 provincial divisions: Eastern Highlands, Milne Bay, Madang, National Capital District, New Ireland, Southern Highlands, West Sepik, East Sepik and Enga. The sample was representative of each of these provinces.

As one of the authors of the report, I presented the findings to a range of policy makers, including: The Australian High Commission, DFAT and the Australian Federal Police, as well as the PNG Ombudsman Commission, Taskforce Sweep, local NGOs, Churches and the private sector.

The findings of the study fill a gap in our knowledge about popular perceptions about corruption in PNG. While there has been much discussion about corruption in the country, little is known about what citizens think about it.

The report shows that most respondents defined corruption as a type of immoral behavior. Urban respondents were more likely to define corruption as ‘the abuse of public trust for private gain’ – a popular definition with anti-corruption organizations.

The questionnaire asked respondents to evaluate nine scenarios depicting different scales and types of corruption. For instance, one scenario involved a candidate bribing a voter with 50 Kina (about AU$ 20), another described a contractor bribing a public official. In turn, respondents were asked to rate the degree to which the scenarios were unacceptable, harmful and corrupt. Most rated the scenarios as unacceptable, but fewer believed they would cause harm or were corrupt.

This is despite almost half of all respondents reporting that they had personally found out about a case of corruption over the past two years. Of these respondents, 77% said that they were personally affected by corruption.

Those affected by corruption were unlikely to report it. Only one quarter said that they knew the process for reporting corruption. Reporting was also affected by community norms and prosecution rates. Three-quarters of respondents said that reporting corruption was affected by the inaction of others, and the fact that very few people are prosecuted for corruption in PNG.

All this sounds rather grim (and it is), but there is a silver lining. For a start, the survey finds that most people were concerned about corruption, and wanted it addressed. Almost 80% of respondents agreed that government corruption affects the provision of good schools, health facilities and roads. Three-quarters agreed that the government should prioritize the fight against corruption.

In addition, a high proportion (65%) of respondents agreed that PNG is completely democratic. And there was great trust expressed in the churches, with 70% agreeing that they are effective in keeping the government accountable. This finding suggests that the churches are well placed to play an increased role in helping to address corruption in PNG. In comparison, only 20 to 30% said the Parliament, Police or the Office of the Prime Minister effectively held government to account.

The report makes a number of recommendations for anti-corruption policy makers and activists. Recommendations are geared towards further engaging citizens in the fight against corruption. This includes encouraging citizens to hold government and political leaders to account. With 58% of respondents agreeing that politicians favor corruption, we think that such initiatives would be welcomed.

The report also calls for clearer communication about corruption (particularly in terms of the damages it can do), and for educating people about how it can be reported. At the same time, there is little point in raising awareness about corruption without strengthening anti-corruption organizations. The Police, Ombudsman Commission, Taskforce Sweep and others need further support, particularly if more people are to be educated about reporting corruption.

There is also a need to ensure higher rates of prosecution. Recently, PNG’s National Research Institute has – in their response to the draft Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) bill – called for an Office of Special Prosecutor of Corruption to be set up as a part of the proposed ICAC. The findings of our study suggest that such initiatives would be welcomed in PNG, where many leaders are investigated for corruption but few are prosecuted.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • Building a common understanding about corruption between policy makers and citizens by encouraging debate about corruption and anti-corruption in PNG.
  • Fighting the structural causes of corruption by addressing the causes of poverty and poor infrastructure.

Given the extent of the problem, narratives about corruption in PNG can leave people feeling powerless and overwhelmed. Indeed, after I presented, one participant said they felt depressed by some of the findings. For those of us with such pessimistic thoughts, it’s worth remembering that there are many Papua New Guineans who are concerned about corruption and want to see it addressed. There’s still much that policy makers can do to help channel this discontent to ensure citizens are meaningfully engaged in the fight against corruption.

Grant Walton is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. He, along with Sarah Dix, authored the report: Papua New Guinean Understandings of Corruption.

Grant has written a second post discussing more findings from the report here.

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Grant Walton

Grant Walton is an associate professor at the Development Policy Centre and the author of Anti-Corruption and its Discontents: Local, National and International Perspectives on Corruption in Papua New Guinea.


  • I am very passionate to learn about governance issues about Papua New Guinea and this study is a very good example of Papua New Guinean’s understanding of the notion of corruption and ways we perceive ways in addressing these. ( A part of the issues with governance). I think it is something we Papua New Guinea’s ourselves continue to struggle to understand and this study is good start. I had a quick read through and I think it would useful to explore further some of the recommendations made and its practicalities in PNG.

  • Hi Tess,

    I agree with your concerns around state-based anti-corruption agencies, they have a pretty poor track record around the world, particularly in developing countries.

    PNG is trying to learn from these experiences. The National Anti-Corruption Strategy Working Group has compared ‘best practice’ to PNG’s draft Organic Law: http://www.actnowpng.org/sites/default/files/ICAC%20public%20discussion%20paper%20May%202013.pdf. While there are some areas where the draft legislation is in line with ‘best practice’, there are still many concerns – including unease about the proposed ICAC’s independence, accountability, ability to pursue past corruption (eg that uncovered by Taskforce Sweep), and processes around securing resources. I’m also disappointed to see that the ICAC will focus on public officials; I think that far more attention needs to be given to private sector corruption in PNG.

    Parliament has just passed a constitutional amendment for an ICAC, and we are waiting for the Organic Law to get passed. So, we still don’t know what the final law will look like, or if the ICAC will make it over the remaining legislative hurdles.

    Having said that, I think that in the short-term an ICAC could be useful. It could play a role in better coordinating anti-corruption responses – a key to Taskforce Sweep’s success. It also has the potential to help augment government processes, and to improve prosecution rates. As our survey suggests these improvements would be welcomed.

    However, by itself it’s unlikely that ICAC will effect long-lasting change. Sustained change will most likely come from a broader cultural shift. As a part of this, anti-corruption agencies will need to prove (not just promote) that transparency and accountability have tangible pay-offs. This is particularly the case in rural and remote areas, where most of the population live. If the public is convinced that corruption is damaging to resources and social harmony, they will be more likely to support an ICAC and other efforts to address corruption.

    I’d like to see a lot more discussion on shifting public attitudes towards corruption, and what role donors, state-based organizations, NGOs, and GROs could play in bringing this about.


  • Thanks for this Grant, it’s great to learn more about the work you’ve been doing in PNG. Although ICAC only gets a brief mention here I would like to pick up on that. I actually have some quite strong reservations about the use of a mechanism such as this and I think what you have presented here actually bears some of them out. I think we need to address what the market failure is that an agency such as ICAC can address. If it is a failure of process then I don’t believe introducing another component into the process will fix that and is likely to make it worse. If it is a failure of acceptance/understanding/credibility – which your work indicates may be the case in some instances then I think it is very difficult to create a state-based/derived institution that can overcome these barriers. I’d love to hear more about what your thinking is on this.

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