Four paths to a better governed state in PNG

Governor of National Capital District Commission (NCDC), Powes Parkop, Minister Abel, musician Jay Lieasi and students led a march to Papua New Guinea's Parliament House on 25 November 2016, where thousands of people joined to raise awareness on ending violence against women as part of the 16 Days of Activism
Papua New Guinea's civil society in action (Johaness Terra/UN Women/Flickr)

Halfway through a course I was teaching on governance at the University of Papua New Guinea last year a student raised his hand and said something like, “this is getting depressing, you’ve shown us our country isn’t governed well, you’ve explained why it isn’t, but you haven’t said anything about how things can get better”.

He had a point. By that stage of the course, I’d scrupulously outlined the problems of poor governance in PNG. I’d dragged the students through protracted lessons in how their country’s political economy kept it poorly governed. But I hadn’t offered any explanations of how things might improve.

In my defence, there was a reason for this: I didn’t know. No one does. But it is possible to point to the most likely paths PNG might follow on the way to becoming a better governed state.

The first of these is simply muddling through. There will be no transformations along this path, rather there will be haphazard and piecemeal improvements, sometimes at a national level, sometimes at a provincial level. Some might even blossom up from individual communities. Many improvements will fail along the way, but others will slowly improve governance to a point where it is good enough to allow PNG onto a better development trajectory. Thereafter, as the country becomes wealthier, healthier and better educated, it will become even better governed, and so on. A virtuous cycle. The main appeal of muddling through is its modesty. One small improvement at a time. And it’s easy to find examples of small governance improvements in PNG. Modesty, however, is also the main problem with muddling through. Sometimes small improvements aren’t enough. Sometimes they go nowhere. Small positive changes have occurred in various places in PNG’s government over the last two decades, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve led anywhere yet.

Another modest approach is one which I described to my students this year as “orthodox political engineering”, by which I meant changing electoral or political rules in fairly minor ways, in the hope they transform politics and with that governance. The exemplar of this approach in PNG’s recent past is the shift to Limited Preferential Voting (LPV).

Changing to LPV was modest – orthodox – because it didn’t require a drastic overhaul, or a leap into the political unknown; it just required a change from an electoral system similar to the United Kingdom’s to one similar to Australia’s. Yet it was hoped it would change electoral incentives and improve political governance, which would influence governance more generally. Whether it would succeed was debated at the time, but there was a logic behind the hope. Political governance is central to governance. And politicians are influenced by electoral incentives. Changing electoral rules could, in theory, change political incentives, and through that governance.

Unfortunately for LPV, it has now been used in four general elections and, while there are tantalising hints that it may have changed the way some voters vote sometimes, it has only brought small gains at best. LPV was feasible, it was enacted, and it wasn’t a disaster. But so far it has also been a good demonstration of a major potential limitation of orthodox political engineering: often it fails to change political fundamentals or improve governance.

What about less orthodox approaches? What about “unorthodox political engineering”? Could PNG become better governed if it made more radical changes to its political rules? So far PNG has never tried, but other countries have. A famous example is the participatory budgeting process introduced in some Brazilian cities. To simplify, participatory budgeting changed the rules governing new investment budgets to give communities a direct say in the provision of projects in their part of the city. This was done though a fair, transparent process. It wasn’t a panacea, but it short-circuited patronage politics in places and sometimes improved service provision. In theory, adopting a similar approach might transform PNG’s District Service Improvement Program from a political slush fund into something that genuinely improved services. It might bring development benefits and undermine the clientelist nature of PNG’s politics too.

And why stop there? In my time in Melanesia I’ve heard scholars and locals argue that politics needs to be transformed from a contest over resources to a conversation about shared rules; something more like customary community governance or what political theorists call deliberative democracy. There is a world of possible unorthodox political changes out there. Democracy in PNG doesn’t need to inhabit the straitjacket of laws it inherited from its former colonial powers. There are problems though: there’s no guarantee that changes, whether informed by theory, or borrowed from other countries, will work in PNG’s unique context; and radical rule changes would require today’s politicians voting away many of the powers they currently hold. Not impossible, but unlikely.

The final path to better governance in PNG doesn’t require rule changes at all. Instead, it involves political change from the bottom up. It involves national social movements forming, which ultimately become political movements, and eventually coherent blocs of politicians – parties – in parliament. Large, coherent political parties, unlike the fluid transactional parties currently in PNG’s parliament, would be able to focus on national issues – such as improving governance – rather than patronage politics and political maneuvering. This would be a radical transformation, but not unprecedented – almost every well-governed country on earth owes its politics to the rise of national social movements in its past.

Could this happen in PNG? The latent potential is there, people throughout PNG face many shared problems, and nascent social movements exist. Yet, the successful examples of social movements transforming governance elsewhere almost all had their making in periods of rapid social and economic change – such as the Industrial Revolution – when old ties were broken and new ones formed, while new ideas flourished. This isn’t happening in PNG at present. Still, new types of social movements may arise in the future. Perhaps not likely, but possible.

This is true of the other paths to better governance I have described too: perhaps not likely, but possible. I wish I could tell you exactly how governance will improve in PNG. But, in lieu of that, my guess is that when improvement does occur, it will follow one of the pathways I have just described.


This research was undertaken with the support of the ANU-UPNG Partnership, an initiative of the PNG-Australia Partnership, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the author only.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • “the major concern ….. is the ideology of regionalism and tribalism. These two concepts (have) created complete chaos in the ethical principles that governs …. service delivery in PNG.”

    Very true, and the primary reason I believe the public service in its present from will remain incapable of delivering services to where they are needed most.

    Hyper regionalism and tribalism have curtailed more than service delivery. It has suppressed economic opportunity for rural men and women and over time these factors have combined and led to the potential for chaos evident in a young disaffected population.

    After five decades it is clear that regionalism is not going away, and delivery systems need to adjust to take account of this. In my view only those who live in the thousands of communities and their elected leaders, in what is surely the most socially diverse nation in the world, can envision and deliver a more “appropriate” system.

    I believe the time has come to support a society wide reflection on what has and has not worked in the first five decades. Conversations should be held across the nation in community meetings, churches, schools, universities and parliament in the hope that a more equitable and culturally sound approach can be derived.

    Importantly it should produce a blueprint on how limited resources can best be applied to a burgeoning population to support health, education and widespread appropriate economic activity.

    To succeed it has to emanate from the grass roots and be carried to the legislature. Social media can drive it. To that end I suggest there is no better time to start than now.

  • Thanks Steven & Terrence

    Reflecting on Bernard Narokobi’s article on Melanesian Way I see that we have values that contributed to the governance of our society. However, the major concern that we currently encounter nowadays is the ideology of regionalism and tribalism.
    These two concepts as created a complete chaos in the ethical principles that governs the outcome of service delivery in PNG. Nepotism and favoritism is reducing the constant flow of service delivery.
    The most important thing to consider in this diverse multicultural ethnicity is the power of unity. Although we may belong to different context but we are one. The moment when we think about the essence of unity in every aspects of governance we will see tangible development in our nation.

    • We need effective policies to minimize ethnic diversity. When everyone identifies as part of the same nation, they’re more likely to prioritize national interests over smaller group connections. This aims to create more homogeneity in PNG. The idea of “Unity in Diversity” only holds true with comprehensive education across the country. Average education level in PNG is around grade four-A long way to go. Just my thoughts.

      • Thank you Kingtau,

        This is a good, interesting point, increasing education levels might bring other benefits too, including helping to foster a stronger more cohesive civil-society, which then becomes catalytic in political change.

        If this is true big question becomes how to significantly improve education in a poorly governed state? That’s another one I don’t know the answer too. But it is certainly worth considering much more.


  • Namos, I agree with your ideas.

    As you point out communities are the bedrock of PNG society, each with their own culture, governance, land and identity, but this is not taken into account by the existing system even if it claims to do so.

    The system as it stands sets out to tackle the big picture matters that concern integration with the international system. Think banking, trade, business, taxation, air traffic rules where everybody conforms to a westernised system.

    The focus upon domestic nation building for your communities, clans and tribes has been quite forgotten in the process. Their needs have simply been ignored with the result that a nation of predominantly young people under the age of 25 are clamouring for change by whatever means – fair or foul.

    I think that there is an urgent need to place a major focus on this demographic before law-and-order issues render parts of the nation ungovernable and threaten to fracture it.

    The sense of disempowerment, frustration and abandonment by the present system is palpable and at times overpowering. The system has failed communities and this cannot be permitted to continue.

    As you suggest the missing piece of the puzzle is a mechanism to ensure that communities, who are the key stakeholders in nation building are consulted on what they expect from their representatives by way of health, education, infrastructure, economic opportunity and employment.

    An appropriate system would by more equitable and enable communities to be active participants in discussing and creating the futures they want for themselves and their children. Presently it does neither.

    As you near your 50th independence anniversary, there is a need for young people to band together and lead a political conversation about what type of society has been created for them.

    Has it benefited them in the manner your founding fathers had hoped for as they expressed in your constitution. If not, what adjustments need to be made as you advance into the next 50 years that this generation will live through.

    Remember that you get the leaders you vote for. A conversation about what the future for the 85 percent who live on their traditional land should look like and what type of representatives might deliver that vision, might be a place to start.

  • Thanks Terrence

    You do have a valid point.

    I am just suggesting if the government can formulate a contextualization model of governance that can be adequate to our society or try to formulate ethical principles that contributes towards the simplicity of development in the cultural context.
    I think that most of the laws that governs the implication of service delivery is more western. However, if we carefully understand the principle of delivering service in relation towards Melanesian perspective for example;
    * The system of reciprocity
    * Hospitality
    * Usage of traditional remedy to cure illnesses
    * Traditional understanding of Manhood and Womanhood
    * Strict discipline and punishment to law breakers
    * Most importantly respect to others in the society
    There are more values to be added however the government is now focusing on major impact projects that develops more laws to protect its primary obligation without thinking of the basic systems that can produce transformative development in lives of the people holistically.

    • Thanks Nemos,

      I’m not sure if I agree with every item on your list. But I think your broader point is very interesting, and an excellent starting point for discussion about how PNG might radically change democratic governance to fit the country’s context.

      Thanks again


  • Hi’
    I think that our government needs to really consider the fact that we are Melanesians, hence our way of life is totally different from any other nations in the world we should be proud of our unique qualities and values that determine how we live.
    The point of why I am making this statement is that our values that upholds the society is not like before. We have been subjected to the influence of others who try to redirect our focus and formulate a different identity in us. We are Melanesian therefore our government system should be the product of our ethical values which have been governing our society for thousands of years.
    Therefore if we capture the essence of what actually governed our society in the past than we will be able to see improvement in service delivery otherwise we will still encounter problem in our government system in relation towards service delivery.
    For example;
    We had traditional political systems
    We had traditional economic systems
    We had traditional ethics that defines individual morality
    We had a policing system that was very effective
    Hence, we need to reconsider everything in relation to how we define governance in our society. By saying all this, I am not trying to bring us back to the stone age but just to give us some clear thought to consider who we really are. WE ARE MELANESIANS…

    • Thanks Namos,

      Good comment. It is certainly worth thinking about how traditional systems could be used to foster better governance in PNG.

      The challenges that I think the country might face in doing this would be:
      (1) The diversity of traditional systems in the country.
      (2) Using traditional systems at a completely different level (the nation state, not the community).
      (3) Using traditional systems in a new more context with today’s challenges.

      In raising these challenges, I am not arguing that traditional systems cannot help. But I think that it will be important to think about how they need to be adapted, if they are to be used.

      Thanks again for your comment.


  • Terence,
    Let me invite you to reading an article by Alfred Kaiabe, a former Member of Parliament, which came out on The National newspaper of Friday, July 28, 2023. It was entitled ‘Time to revisit Melanesian rule by consensus”.
    Thank you.

  • One prominent PNG leader made a reflection on governance and service-delivery in PNG and said that PNG needs a reformed system that promotes:
    ● egalitarianism,
    ● multilateralism, and
    ● interdependence.

    I am convinced that that is the new vision for the dynamic political governance setting for PNG.

      • ‘How to reshape the state in PNG to deliver them’ is a million-dollar question.

        We will have to work outside of the adopted governance system and successfully deliver that to make a mark and win the credibility desired or needed.

  • I read from ‘The National’ newspaper of 28 June 2023 the article entitled “Four parts to a better governed state in PNG” and that has led me into this blog.

    The lens on governance in PNG should scan both the situation now and that in the colonization era to make a judgment based on a holistic picture.

    It was interesting to note from your article points of:
    ● possible piecemeal improvements in governance blossoming from individual communities;
    ● participatory budgeting process, fairly and transparently done, to give communities a direct say in the provision of projects;
    ● the clientelist nature of PNG’s politics;
    ● transformation from a contest over resources to a conversation about shared rules: something more like customary community governance or deliberative democracy;
    ● democracy in PNG does not have to inhabit the straitjacket of laws it inherited from its former colonial powers;
    ● in PNG’s unique context, there’s no guarantee that changes, informed by theory or adopted from other countries, will work;
    ● it requires politicians voting away many of the powers they currently hold;
    ● bottom up political change;
    ● forming of national social movements, leading ultimately to coherent blocs of politicians or parties in Parliament;
    ● every well-governed country on earth owes its politics to the rise of national social movements in its past;
    ● the latent potential for this happening in PNG is there – nascent social movements exist;

    PNG has in the colonial era been and still is ethnically, linguistically and geographically diverse. All these three form the first and fundamental reference frame or platform from which consideration for better governance should be staged. For the next layer on the frame – the external factor – we consider the greater and long-term implications on the PNG society the attitudes of the colonizers and the events of miss-judgements and missed opportunities in the transition to an independent (or more appropriately nationhood) state.

  • Monitoring and evaluation for the District Services Improvement Program (DSIP) in Papua New Guinea 🇵🇬 (PNG) is very poor despite having in place the Department of National Planning and Monitoring (DNPM). The DNPM office is centralized in Waigani, too far away from the districts, and this combined with an absence of an effective monitoring program leaves a vacuum in the monitoring space for government programs and funds.

    What we need for a way forward is a system whereby reports on acquittal and projects coming from the districts into the Office of Rural Development (ORD) are made published in the public domain for the people to evaluate the performance of their MPs and district administration officers. This will be the most effective incentive on the performance of the DSIP in PNG.

    As a taxpayer, I would want to see my sacrificed hard-earned money effectively making development impact – not squandered by politicians and their cronies for their selfish, popularity-seeking programs.

    • Thank you Nelson, both for your other comment and for this one.

      I agree with you entirely. Better monitoring of how DSIP funds are spent would be a real and meaningful governance improvement.

      Thanks again


    • Totally agree with your sentiments. Its not just the Department of Planning and Monitoring that needs to do more auditing on the ground. DIRD and AGO also need to be more resourced and be more proactive. Hopefully, our new website can also help provide more transparency.
      Eddie Tanago
      ACT NOW!

  • The DDA Watch is a useful and new NGO development –

    “The website provides access to information on Papua New Guinea’s District Infrastructure Support Program (DISP) and the work of all ninety-three individual District Development Authorities (DDAs).

    The website is completely politically neutral and is not associated with any political party, any elected official or any intending candidate.

    All DDAs are represented and the information about them is presented without any bias, favour or discrimination.

    The website is designed to encourage public participation in the democratic process and social auditing and is funded through community donations.”

  • The recently launched website, DDA Watch is an example of a positive step towards improving governance in PNG. For far too long millions have been given out to 94 districts with very less or zero accountability on how these funds have been spent. It is a nightmare too for the Department of Implementation and Rural Development and Auditor Generals Office who are meant to audits on the districts who find it difficult to access information- district plans, budgets, inspection reports and audit reports. About time, we have more scrutiny over the use these funds meant for service delivery to the rural masses.

    • Thanks Eddie,

      It is fascinating to hear about the DDA Watch website. It will be interesting to see what affect it has on accountability and performance.

      Thanks again for the insight.


  • The situation that has evolved over the first five decades since independence should come as little surprise.

    I am somewhat bemused by maps that show PNG as a collection of provinces that comprise a nation state. In my view, a more accurate rendition would be a map that delineates every clan boundary – a nation comprised of 6-7 thousand separate subunits each defined by its own land/sea boundaries, culture, linguistic dialect, language, recognised authorities and people.

    Given that the structure of PNG society comes with hyper-localised loyalties, rather than towards the greater good, it is difficult to foresee a how widespread cry could emerge for change to the present system.

    Prime ministers that have acted more like mafia dons have been more successful at maintaining their power and positions than those who acted with a focus upon the common good.

    Two notable examples of the latter approach, Sir Mekere Mourata and Sir Rabbie Namaliu, both pursued policies directed towards the common good of citizens and the nation state. Both failed to hold their coalitions together despite the acknowledged quality of their vision and policies.

    So, as we like to say in PNG – How? What pathway if any might hold a promise for rectifying the inequities, nepotism and corruption of the present.

    My first thought is that the next generation of national policy thinkers, planners and implementers should be thrown this challenge to discuss among their peers in a space such as ANU that will nurture it.

    My second thought is to suggest that answers may lie in envisioning a system that connects the wants, needs, demands, contributions and aspirations of those 6-7 thousand culturally important subunits into the present system in a way that make it respond collectively to their voices. Let’s face it, the system as it stands, utterly fails to do so.

    The multi-tiered public administrative system stops at the level of local level government (LLG) services. It is staffed by people who are generally regarded by their superiors as “little fish” in a system that is almost exclusively top down.

    A system that is big on protecting one’s derriere, backstabbing and a finely honed management style of “no can do” and “please come tomorrow.” Accordingly, they are rarely respected by the clans in whose areas they work and upon whose decisions they rely upon.

    Viewed from a cultural perspective, public servants make decisions about community health, education, law & order, infrastructure and economic development for people who very rarely have any say in the process and when services are not forthcoming, are also considered to be worse than useless.

    I shudder to type the reception some district and LLG public servants would have received had they ever deemed to grace communities, that were nominally under their jurisdiction with their presence.

    Change might come if a major realignment of priorities was undertaken. Firstly, that the criteria for the allocation of district development funds be allocated strictly on the basis of catchment population verified on a minumum 5 yearly basis. This would involve Village Recorders who presently operate in name only.

    Secondly, that district development priorities be discussed and formulated not by a joint district planning and budgetary priorities committee (JDPPC) or provincial counterpart, but rather by derived by a process of discussion with all communities and clans within a LLG and costed plans for implementation be signed by traditional community leaders with government representatives in front of the local member and their community.

    The point being, unless and until the communities and the clans, that own the land, the land that collectively makes up the nation state that purports to be PNG. Until they are party to the decisions that affects them on their Place/rivers/seas as part of the nation building process – there is unlikely to be one.

    And until every community feels that the process is accountable to them, that each and every member’s derriere is a sling for non-delivery of basic health, education, economic empowerment and law and order it is hard to imagine how pressure could also be applied to a moribund, unaccountable and broken PNGPS to perform.

    • Thanks Stephen,

      I agree that the colonial creation of PNG, and the agglomeration of a very heterogeneous population, cast a long shadow over PNG’s politics.

      What you suggest regarding District Development Funds would fit very nicely under the heading “unorthodox political engineering”. It sounds like a very sensible proposal. The challenge would be to convince politicians to actually implement it. Hopefully, that can be overcome.


  • Thanks Terence – a thoughtful traversing of the current and potential political issues associated with “government” in PNG. Let me extend your discussions by linking the political aspects of that governance with the administrative.

    Any government – especially PNG, in your example – needs its public service to deliver demonstrably on its priorities and the services that are derived from them. For Australia, this is made quite explicit up front in Section 3 of the (Australian) Public Service Act:
    “3 Objects of this Act
    The main objects of this Act are:
    (a) to establish an apolitical public service that is efficient and effective in serving the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public; ”

    The APS thus has three clients and the Australian Centre for Evaluation has just been established in The Treasury to measure how well the “Australian public” receive those services. In my previous UPNG lectures on “Policy Monitoring and Evaluation”, my students have educated me very well on what may hinder or prevent those PNG services being received by them.

    I have been disappointed not to be able to find evidence from within PNG government sources of those programs and services being delivered effectively to the people of PNG.

    Conjointly, in July 2020, the PNG Auditor-General presented a revealing report on PNG finances: “On the control of and on transactions with or concerning the public monies and property of Papua New Guinea” –

    On page 6 was this disturbing finding about the lack of corporate planning and accountability in PNG public sector agencies:
    “However, the result of the audits indicated that out of the 28 entities reviewed in 2016 and
    2015, I found that 14 departments [ = 50% = my calculation] did not have in place Corporate Plans. Furthermore, 5 out of 7 and 13 out of 21 audited entities did not prepare Annual Plans respectively in 2016 and 2015. Corporate and Business Plans are important as they set the targets and performance indicators to assist with monitoring of achievements and taking corrective actions.

    Departments without these plans have difficulty in measuring performance which in turn leads to ineffective and inefficient service delivery. ”

    This is a significant and objective conclusion about the lack of professional public sector management and demonstrable performance in PNG. It highlights the next steps in developing PNG “governance” beyond the political, to ensure the citizens of PNG receive the services funded by the Parliament.

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