Governance in PNG: what can donors do?

For what seems like decades, evidence-based policy has been a mantra. Practitioners are aware of this, just as enlightened researchers are aware of the pressures on aid agency staff. But even with the best will in the world, turning evidence into practice can be challenging. Let’s take the recent findings of the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) five year research program into the growth and development performance of patrimonial regimes in Africa. The program found that development and growth is possible under such circumstances as long as a number of conditions are met:

  • a disciplined and centralised management of economic ‘rents’ (usually associated with a strong, visionary leader or leadership);
  • a single or dominant party;
  • a competent, confident economic technocracy;
  • a strategy to include, at least partially, the most important political groups in the country; and
  • a sound basic development policy framework.

By contrast, four factors were found to be massive inhibitors of development:

  • significant ethno-linguistic diversity;
  • little or no central disciplining / constraining authority;
  • a ‘winner takes all’ constitution; and
  • the absence of a visionary and developmental leadership.

I found this argument and the evidence provided to support it compelling. In my (new) job with AusAID, I reflected on the implications of these findings for our program in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a major strategic partner for Australia. It is hard not to conclude that PNG could be the model for the ‘where development is difficult’ category.  PNG is characterised by extreme historical, geographic and cultural diversity and it’s governance is characterised by the absence of any strong sense of national identity and by weak political and social cohesion. Many citizens have little engagement with the state: imposing few demands for improved services and receiving few benefits from the State. Informal institutions prevail over formal institutions. Politics is shaped by the ‘big man’ culture, where elites and politicians provide benefits to clients and supporters. MP’s spend big to win office and are expected to reward family and supporters appropriately.  There is no constraining authority at the political centre to discipline this system of rent management.

The data suggest that there has been little if any improvement in PNG governance over the last 15 years. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators show all six categories of governance are worse today than they were in 1996:

PNG governance quality 1996-2012

These figures make grim reading for AusAID. So the question is, with what we now know, what can we do differently? The overarching conclusion of the ODI research is that we must ditch the Principal-Agent assumptions underpinning much development work in such systems. If we then put this together with the other things we know (function not form, build on what’s there, context is all, institutions grow endogenously etc), what does it all mean for any approach to strengthening governance in PNG?

While I doubt there are any quick and easy solutions, there may be some things we can do differently. First, we have to recognise that we may need to choose between supporting the machinery of government – the Executive – and ensuring services are delivered to those that need them. The Executive is often not very interested in execution. We may need to accept that supporting the structures of the state may not contribute effectively to poverty reduction. This means finding other, non-state modalities for delivering ‘development’.

Second, we may need to accept that the issue in PNG is not about the volume of aid but about how we can change institutions and the incentives of politicians. More aid may make the problem worse by weakening the incentives to raise revenue domestically and undermining domestic accountability.

Third, we should (finally) give up the assumption that ‘building the capacity’ of individuals and organisations in the government will make a difference to service delivery on the front line. The best we can hope for is a difference in at the margins. Under these circumstances, the political elite has few incentives to use the bureaucracy as a developmental instrument, in the same way that Korea did in the 1960s and 1970s, and that Rwanda and Ethiopia are doing today. Maybe the best we can do is ensure the survival of the ‘shell’ of the state so that the macro-economy is reasonably managed and there is a sufficiency of security to prevent a downward spiral to conflict. Our objective here could be ‘stability at minimum cost’.

Fourth, we need to think more creatively about how to build on structures at local level. These structures should be visible, legitimate and have the capacity to bear a greater load. Never mind that they don’t look like the ones we know and love. We need to experiment and be willing to take risks.

Fifth, we may need to be willing to put a greater share of our funding outside the government system and rely increasingly on Community Driven Development. If the state has failed, let us acknowledge it and work with non-state providers.

Finally, we know that MPs and citizens like direct funds – funds that MPs can do with as they like. Why not give them an extra $1m each to spend with strict conditions? This would seem like a win-win option: MPs get extra cash and the credit for delivering the cargo, while at the same time learning about the nature and workings of accountability. Citizens benefit from the services provided by their MPs and begin to develop developmental expectations. This is the beginning of state-society relations: when wantoks begin to morph into citizens, and PNG may begin its journey to real, as against imagined, statehood.

These issues are being considered. The alternative is to continue on with what we have being doing for the last twenty years. It is clear however that one more push at doing this, but trying a little harder this time, won’t work. History and the new research from ODI tells us so. But designing a program knowing this remains tough. We know enough to know what should guide us on Monday morning, but we often end up having to triangulate among evidence, the desire to spend, and the legitimate priorities of our partner governments. But hey, whoever said development, let alone this governance business, was easy?

This is an edited version of the blog originally posted on the World Bank’s ‘Governance for Development’ blog on the 21st of December 2012, available here.

Graham Teskey is a Principal Sector Specialist at AusAID. This post represents his views and not necessarily those of AusAID.

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Graham Teskey

Graham Teskey is the leader of Abt Associates’ Global Governance practice.


  • Marcus P – I have just discovered your entry of Feb 21. There is no feature on this blog to get email notification of a new comment.

    I didn’t propose “simple and neat solutions to the development challenges of PNG.” You are attributing something to me which is easy to repudiate since no reasonable person would suggest such a thing. I pointed out a prerequisite for a functional democratic polity. That is all. The idea—the whole idea—is that with a proper structure the locals can develop themselves. I have nothing to say about their development challenges, let alone offer solutions.

    I am cheered to see you think PR is an obvious reform but you think it won’t revolutionise behaviour. I think it would. It has done so everywhere else. But that’s a bit off the point. I can’t guarantee a new dawn. The point is that without constitutional reform there is no chance of any new dawn.

    I made no “strong claim that culture … is irrelevant to political behaviour.” Culture IS behaviour. Culture, I said (many times in several thousand words) is irrelevant to political structure. Structure. My claim that culture is irrelevant to political structure is wide open to falsification: just find a (successful, democratic) structure that reflects the culture of the country. Every country’s constitution will contain fancy cultural sentiments but the political design will be just a political design similar and dissimilar to other countries but not reflecting local culture.

    The corollary is that PNG can take any structure that is working somewhere else and it will work for PNG. More than that: PNG MUST take a structure that is working somewhere else. And it must forget about taking any alleged PNG cultural feature into account in that design. Let the elected representatives worry about the culture. They will handle it well if they are operating within a viable structure.

    Finally, what “most informed observers say about political behaviour in PNG and everywhere else” may be wrong. In particular, pejorative assertions about culture in the context of political behaviour are not only arrogant but ultimately incorrect. It was not religious culture in Northern Ireland that caused the Troubles. It was not New Zealand’s dysfunctional culture that caused their problems. In both cases it was dysfunctional political structure. Similarly it was not culture that caused the Bougainville tragedy; it was the structure, namely the uninterested colonial authority and later the unbridled majoritarian PNG assembly.

  • Stephen,

    Just found your comment. Glad to take up your three points.

    Point 1a. Majoritarian unicameral is doomed to fail.

    First thing is that Botswana is bicameral. See e.g.,
    Lijphart in “Thirty-six democracies” (highly recommended) rates Botswana with the UK as “between medium-strength and weak bicameralism.” He rates India along with Canada, Spain, France and Venezuela as “medium-strength bicameralism.”

    As far as I know no country has made the unicameral majoritarian structure work.

    Point 1b. The upper house has next to no power.

    Many people have remarked on this—and yet it curbs. Upper houses like UK, Canada and the former NZ have virtually no formal power and are disgracefully undemocratic. They tend to be sinecures for senior people being “kicked upstairs.” It seems, though, that they have enough prestige that the government avoids their criticism. The evidence is that even those appalling upper houses are doing some curbing. If you’re interested, the best reference is probably Meg Russell, “Reforming the House of Lords: lessons from overseas.”

    NZ was immediately in trouble when, after a century of complaining about it, they managed to abolish the upper house around 1950. Forty years later they threw their Westminster heritage in the bin and changed to West German PR. Lucky to pull it off, actually.

    Point 2. PNG pollies won’t want reform.

    So true. I did make the point in a previous post (“Electoral reform is a thankless undertaking…”). Power is seldom relinquished and especially not by professional power-brokers.

    Power is taken, not granted, and yet all those Australian houses did the switch. The politicians hated it. In most cases it was a huge saga and they had to be dragged backwards into it, kicking and screaming, wailing and gnashing their teeth. In NSW the saga spanned 50 years with many wondrous twists and turns. In WA it took 16 very angry years. Politicians hate reform. In opposition they will give it lip service to embarrass the government and when they win power they’ll do anything not to pursue it. Yet it has actually happened six times: Senate, NSW, SA, WA, NZ, Vic. So it can be done.

    It has to be done. In PNG it is vital that there come a day, as in those other six polities, when, after all the arguments and acres of newsprint and hundreds of pages of Hansard, a majority in the legislature raise their hands and vote for a proper system. It will be an hour of high drama with the losing minority in a state of grief and the winning majority grim-faced, devoid of victory exultation.

    Crucial to the reforms in Australia and NZ was the presence of two strong parties whereby one of them felt it was missing out. That is not the situation in PNG so reform won’t happen unless there is outside pressure. That means Australia. The guts of the message has to be: “Dear PNG Polly, Your structure has never been known to work. You know that in practice it is crooked. Do the right thing for your country.” Their patriotism will have to be reinforced with inducements—Australia again. It was Australian negligence before independence that caused the situation. Australia has to fix it.

    The situation must not be allowed to go on. Were it not for the mineral wealth, PNG could just continue to crumble with Australia mitigating the worst effects. But the resource curse is going to strike and present donors will count for nothing. Without reform, if history is a guide the reasonable prognosis is: coup d’état, Torrens title, genocide in Bougainville, refugee camps in Queensland. Australia will spend decades bleating impotently and cringing in the UN and then in 40 years or so: truth and reconciliation commission, resettlement of refugees, excavation of mass graves—and a PR electoral system.

    Point 3. Donors shouldn’t influence.

    Who are these donors? I thought it was basically Australia—who else? Why shouldn’t donors exercise influence? Don’t they want the best for the country?

  • It’s been an interesting discussion. I would like to make three points.

    First, I find it hard to accept Mike’s point that PNG (or any other country for that matter) is doomed to fail as long as it has “majoritarian elections with unicameral legislature.” India might have a bicameral legislature, but its Upper House has next to no power (it doesn’t “curb” anything as far as I can tell), and it also has majoritarian elections. India isn’t a total success story, but it isn’t a failure either. Or, even more to the point, what about Botswana, a very successful African country that has both majoritarian elections and a unicameral legislature? I’m not a political scientist, so would welcome any clarification or corrections on these two comparisons.

    Second, MPs in PNG have become very powerful in relation to funds going to their own constituencies (look at the latest budget, which puts billions of Kina at their disposition) so I don’t think they are going to support a constitutional change to move to multi-member constituencies.

    Third, constitutional reform in PNG is certainly worth discussing (after all, the Government has just announced a constitutional review), and perhaps it might be a good idea, but, to go back to the topic of the post, fundamental constitutional change from one type of democratic set-up to another is not something donors can or should influence.

  • “If … … the justice system is not allowed to get bogged down in litigation…”

    The passive voice is emblematic. Who or what will not allow the justice system is not bogged down? God? The resilience and fibre of the people?

    “…the usual checks and balances of government and administration that are or should be in place to keep the MP’s honest.”

    That’s what’s wrong with PNG? The public servants aren’t keeping the politicians honest? In other countries it’s the other way round: the electoral foundation supports parliament which shapes the executive which shapes the administration which shapes management (or “governance” to use the modish word).

    If the foundation isn’t right, everything else will be shaky and any reform attempt will be papering over cracks. For example, when (if) RAMSI goes home the Solomons will immediately fall to bits because RAMSI isn’t fixing the political structure. The Australian authorities give every appearance of not being aware that unless power is shared, those who think they are missing out will object. That is, the civil war will break out again and whole RAMSI venture will be for nothing.

    RAMSI officials are not interested. If anyone does suggest that the political structure is one which has never been known to work they are brushed aside. (Too hard. Anyway, why bother?)

    You say the people in PNG don’t hold wantoks to account. Melanesians didn’t invent tribalism. That is every culture. A topical example is the NSW Labor Party. They cannot hold their wantoks to account. They just can’t do it. They have top-level inquiries but the reports are ignored. People know what’s going on but they can’t act against their own tribe. Or take the Lance Armstrong business: wantoks all over obeying the universal maxim: “Don’t dob in your wantok.” A rort only gets cleaned up when outsiders can exert power.

    Which is precisely why power has to be shared. This is not special to PNG, just more obvious. The remedy is also obvious: multi-member electorates. Then in each electoral district the different members of different tribes or parties can hold each other to account.

    You are concerned about boring the reader, Paul? Do you think it boring to tell them PNG politics is starting to come of age so the resilience and fibre of the PNG people will ensure objectives are practical and achievable and therefore PNG will move forward in a constructive way?

    That doesn’t bore me. It frightens me.

  • Mike, at the risk of boring other readers, I suggest we will probably have to agree to disagree. My conjecture is not specifically aimed at the Parliamentary system and I agree with you, the present concept when it was introduced to PNG was flawed. However these travails are merely typical of the holistic problem affecting ‘governance’ throughout PNG.

    While you may ague and refer to various foreign countries and their attempts at improving the Parliamentary system/s, the issue is much wider and more deeply entrenched in PNG. Sure the ‘rot may start at the top’ as you are endeavoring to point out. Yet it also flows down through the usual checks and balances of government and administration that are or should be in place to keep the MP’s honest.

    There have been military units who are allowed to mutiny and lose their weapons and get away with it a number of times. There have are police officers who are allowed to be hired out to protect private companies and reports of how they lease out their weapons. There are public servants who are well known for not turning up for work or accepting bribes before they will do anything. The collapse of the whole structure of government has been predicated on allowing ‘wantoks’ to break the rules because it is culturally unacceptable to hold them to account.

    If the current PM continues to bring in proper reform and the Ombudsman and Task Force Sweep continue to reveal malfeasance and the police force energetically pursues criminals and the justice system is not allowed to get bogged down in litigation, PNG will be able to move forward in a constructive way.

    In the meantime, anyone looking at PNG from the ‘outside’ should try to understand the problems from a PNG perspective. To not do so risks continuing to ‘hit a square peg into a round hole’ in the belief they are right because they know best. Las momo kani. Nogat tru. Arita yamboma, etc.

    • Thanks Paul. I think you’re correct that this dialogue may be starting to bore other readers. Mike, I think that one should be cautious about proposing that there are simple and neat solutions to the development challenges of PNG. Though you are probably right that some combination of an upper house, MMR and PR will push political behaviour in the right direction, and it seems an obvious reform for PNG, it is difficult to imagine that sub-state individual and group political behaviour will be altered in any revolutionary sense. And your strong claim that culture (conventions, customs, traditions, and codes of behaviour see Douglass North, 1990) is irrelevant to political behaviour seems too binary to fit with what most informed observers say about political behaviour in PNG and everywhere else. Thank you both for your valuable contribution to the conversation.

  • “I only suggest that by understanding the local culture, people may be able to understand why good governance has been recognizably so hard to achieve.”

    I have made no impression, have I?

    The reason good governance is hard to achieve is because the political structure makes it impossible. Trying to understand PNG governance through the perspective of culture can only lead to misunderstanding.

    Even the misunderstanding is hazy. Whereas I have produced instance after instance showing culture to be irrelevant, you can produce no evidence of how culture affects governance. I suspect the reason for this would be that any evidence would be in the form of anecdotes. Such anecdotes are embarrassing to put into print (they look like ridicule) and if some feature of the culture be submitted as explaining, say, corruption, then examples of similar corruption can always be found in our society—which undermines the thesis that it is culture which is causing the corruption.

    There are many instances where our politicians, also, were on the take. Venal is venal in any culture. The difference is, though, that corruption in our society is not so widespread as in PNG. We have institutional curbs on it.

    A majoritarian parliament requires a curb. Without it, the incentives are wrong: cronies are rewarded, top civil servants take bribes, ordinary lives are ruined. Though the upper houses of Britain and Canada are grossly undemocratic (as was New Zealand’s) and almost powerless, they suffice to curb the majoritarian lower houses from turning into elected dictatorships.

    It is quite a clumsy arrangement having a faulty lower house checked by an upper house. Effectiveness varies with place and fluctuates in time. When Howard unexpectedly won control of the Senate in 2004 things started to go awry for his government and a major reason he lost the next election was because he got carried away with his dominance of both houses (“work choices”). In WA the royal commission into “WA Inc” explicitly blamed the debacle on having an ineffectual upper house. It is the job of a political system to cope with the culture and the then WA upper house was not able to cope with the Brian Burke culture.

    Australia has changed nearly all its upper houses to PR: the Senate 1949, SA 1973, NSW 1978, WA 1987, Vic 2003; unicameral ACT switched to PR in 1988. PNG, meanwhile, has been left to stew. PR better aligns the politicians’ individual interests with the public interest so PR houses tend to be proper debating chambers. Also, the forestry company, instead of bribing the member for an electorate, has to bribe perhaps ten members—ten who belong to several different parties. Corruption becomes a lot harder.

    If culture has anything to do with it, Australian culture must be very bad indeed to require both kinds of curb: both upper house and PR. When unicameral NZ started having problems no one blamed NZ culture. They fixed their problems not by reinstating the upper house but by switching to PR. They adopted the West German form of it. Does this mean NZ has the same culture as Germany? Culture is—evidently—irrelevant to political structure.

    Old hands, acquainted with the culture through long hours by the rural campfire may find it hard to accept that wantok violence is caused by electoral design and parliamentary structure. But it is so. The wantok violence in Northern Ireland vanished with the introduction of PR. Just vanished. With the widespread introduction of PR in Africa, it has largely gone quiet. The same may be expected in PNG. And even if PNG has the most ghastly culture on earth, it doesn’t help to lumber it with an unbridled majoritarian parliament.

    The idea that PNG can keep its dysfunctional structure and Australia can run the country is delusional. Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands can be swatted down whenever they get out of hand but the days of mineral-rich PNG kowtowing to Australia are numbered. Moreover the colonial power has too many distractions at home to properly pay attention. It was Australia running the place that caused Bougainville. In that case the result was a society ripped apart and 20,000 people dead.

    Neither their single majoritarian chamber nor a foreign power can run the country. The structure has to be right. The remedy is simple: PNG must adopt PR or an upper house.

    In 1975 the Australian government inflicted a curse upon the people of PNG. It took fifty years for Northern Ireland to boil over and now, after 38 years, PNG is simmering. It becomes more volatile as its politics become more shambolic and its resources become more valuable. The crisis will be very difficult to cope with. When Queensland goes bananas we can send Four Corners there to sort it out. When the Northern Territory goes off the rails the Commonwealth parliament can jerk it into line. When Northern Ireland blew up, England sacked the government and sent in an occupation force. These last-ditch curbs are not available for PNG.

    Electoral reform is a thankless undertaking. It has to overcome the opposition of those who are benefitting from the current system, who find every excuse to prove that now is not the right time, and who submit counter-proposals to obfuscate and stall. Advocating electoral reform does not advance careers and even when the need is accepted, it gets put off to tomorrow because today’s politics must be attended to. Moreover, because day-to-day political squabbling is colourful and dramatic, and election rules are dull and bureaucratic, the media and the public are not interested.

    Despite these obstacles, all those Australian houses did manage to change. It was a creaking, groaning, whingeing business but they got there. If NZ could do it, why not PNG? But PNG is far past the stage where it can do it alone. It is up to Australia.

    The leaders of PNG know their land has become a mafia state. But they are patriots: if they were encouraged to adopt an honourable strategy to set their country on a positive path, they might do it. A tragedy might be prevented and with a viable electoral structure, PNG would have a chance to become peaceful and prosperous.

  • Mike,

    The central issue first raised was about Governance in PNG. I merely point out that it is my belief that PNG’s traditional culture has a large bearing on how PNG leaders and authorities have viewed the priorities of governance in the past.

    I suggest that through cultural misunderstandings, a lack of suitable alternatives and a large dose of naivety, Australia bequeathed PNG in 1975 with a system for which it was not yet ready. The fact that a pluralistic society and educated debate over at least a decade had produced the Australian political system didn’t guarantee the same would work in PNG.

    I didn’t say that PNG culture is ‘THE’ problem. I only suggest that by understanding the local culture, people may be able to understand why good governance has been recognizably so hard to achieve.

    I have hitherto suggested ways in which PNG could easily introduce an Upper House of Review using the existing Regional Members.

    Today’s PNG political leaders are far more ‘savvy’ in terms of what will work than their predecessors. I believe this acquired knowledge augers well for the future. The current PM should be congratulated and supported for the initiatives and policies he is starting to bring in.



  • “…from my experience, to try and understand PNG one must first try to understand the local culture.”

    Paul, surely you are right. To understand anywhere pretty much means understanding the culture. We are not here trying to understand PNG. We are here trying to understand what you called the lesson of history.

    “I don’t know what experience you have about rural PNG… …I have no idea where you were around the early 1970’s but at the time I was living on PNG outstations.”

    Ad hominem does not constitute legitimate argument. Your personal experience in PNG is not germane to the lessons of history. Nor is mine but since you ask, while you were at rural outstations, I was at Ok Tedi, which in those days was really, really rural.

    “Why would multi person electorates be any different than having the current overlap of Regional and local electorates?”

    That’s well worth asking. This sort of question was pretty thoroughly worked through in the nineteenth century. I could offer theoretical answers but I’m finding it hard enough to get the simple lesson of history across. I recall papers around the time LPV was introduced (saying it was not going to achieve anything) which would cover this ground, so if you’re genuinely interested you might seek them out. They’d be from ANU and in the usual journals. Also Lijphart’s new edition of “36 democracies” would be informative.

    “…experiences elsewhere will be an indication of what might work and what may not…”

    Yes, hold that thought. That’s what “lessons of history” means.

    Here is the lesson. No one has made the PNG structure (majoritarian elections with unicameral legislature) work. No one. Bitter fact. Around the democratic world viable countries have either an upper house or else multi-member proportional representation. Some places have both.

    Can your campfire-acquired knowledge of the culture tell you PNG will succeed with a political structure that has failed everywhere else? It cannot. Culture is just not relevant to the political design. At the regular re-drawing of electoral boundaries, culture may be taken into account. South Australia actually requires the Electoral Commission to do this. The SA provision is unusual and is discussed sceptically in the literature—which casts doubt on the appropriateness of a role for culture even at that level of detail. Note that the structure itself—having an electoral commission—is culture-free.

    The bottom line is this: Can you show me anything in the political structure of any of the democracies, that reflects the culture of the country? If you can, it would indicate culture matters. If you can’t, culture is irrelevant.

    You end by saying PNG culture is a “problem.” It is not a problem. On the contrary, Melanesian ambitiousness would be an excellent basis for prosperous democracy—if the system gave it a chance. The problem lies with those who insist PNG culture is a problem.

    Blaming the culture suits Australian bureaucrats and academics. Coups and foreign police occupations are interesting to write reports and papers on, and to pontificate about in the media. There is hobnobbing with high level officials and politicians, there are junkets to Pacific islands, and there are conferences and courses to run in “governance.” Since everything continues to get worse it is the perfect gravy train. To advocate radical constitutional change is not a good career move.

    Yet radical reform is essential. PNG is doomed unless it gets an upper house or switches to proportional representation.

    The situation is comparable with that in Sir Arthur Lewis’s west Africa in 1965. He couldn’t convince anyone. Will the outcome in PNG be as horrific?

  • Thanks for the reply Paul, but I must say I don’t think you understood much of what I said.

    You ask what the alternative is to having a perfect cop-out. The alternative is to take responsibility for policies. The second sentence of your first para (“You are also right…”) appears to have no connection with anything I wrote. I never mentioned donors’ “political objectives” or any “fickle or ignorant electorate.”

    “To make generalised observations about such a broad topic as ‘culture’ is always going to offend some who have differing perspectives.”

    Yes, it is offensive to say, as PNG specialists in effect do, “Your culture is inferior to mine” but you miss my point. My point is that culture is irrelevant. Just irrelevant. Culture has nothing to do with PNG’s problems. The juicy details of the exotic culture are immaterial to PNG’s political difficulties.

    Your assertion that Australia had no choice in what they set up at independence is incorrect. They had the choice of every political system in the world. But they stood back and allowed the local politicians open slather. The politicians then set it up to ensure they would have permanent open slather.

    The constitution committee, composed entirely of members of the PNG House of Assembly, set its own rules. Where did they get the idea of having single-member electorates with a single house of parliament? What were their models? The only Australian example was Queensland, the most corrupt state in the country. New Zealand had abolished its upper house in 1950 and was having deep regrets. Geoffrey Palmer, later PM, called NZ an elected dictatorship. The only other democratic country that had this structure was Northern Ireland which was in turmoil. Mauritius had tried it and it had failed and it was catastrophic in Africa. Why did the PNG committee adopt a structure that no country has ever made work? That question is rhetorical: it was a power grab. Australia permitted this and it is a tragedy.

    This is not wisdom of hindsight. I am describing the situation at the time. There are good technical reasons why single-member electorates along with a single legislature doesn’t work. For example, in 1965 the Nobel Prize winning economist, Sir Arthur Lewis, wrote “Politics in West Africa,” predicting terrible consequences of this design and he suggested multi-member proportional representation. Prominent political scientist, Stephen Lukes, said at the time that Lewis was right and further predicted that no one would take any notice. Lukes was right, too, and it came to pass that tragedy was visited upon millions.

    Back in 1921 when the UK government created Northern Ireland, they must have understood it for they installed multi-member PR even though PR was virtually unknown in British politics. Unfortunately, a few years later they buckled to Stormont’s—the local MPs’— demands to change it. Thus, like the PNG politicians fifty years later, the incumbents made the rules to suit themselves and so launched NI into two generations of misery. After the “troubles” started about 1970 the UK government realised they had to revert to PR. It took three attempts before they could get it to stick—about ten years ago.

    “PNG politics is starting to come of age… …the resilience and fibre of the PNG people” Whatever the source of such pap, you should strike it off your reading list.

    “objectives must be practical and achievable” Yes, and motherhood is also good. Nothing will be achieved until the political structure is rectified. Neither the locals nor foreigners will succeed. It has gone backwards since 1975 and further decline is a sure bet. It will be compounded by more of the resource curse. Australia can prop up the Solomons and Vanuatu indefinitely but Australia’s influence in PNG will wane as mineral money moves in.

    When the chaos in NI got too bad the UK government sent in the troops. Australia can’t do that with PNG. At some point the colonels will take over.

    “imposed political systems didn’t meet local objectives.” The political system is still there and will never meet any country’s objectives. It will only meet elected MPs’ short-term, personal objectives.

    “Today’s modern and educated PNGian now has an opportunity to make changes for the future based on the knowledge of what works” As I say, do ditch your source of such fatuity. It is exactly what is not the case. Your m and e PNGian has no chance and never will till the constitution is fixed. Either an upper house or (better) multi-member electorates.

    “as far as Melanesian culture ‘evaporating’ as a significant factor in PNG politics, I beg to differ.” You are not begging to differ with me but with a straw man. I said that if PNG had a viable political structure its culture would evaporate as a conversation topic.

    And it would. Consider Northern Ireland. NI allegedly had a huge culture problem: Catholics versus Protestants, at each others’ throats for centuries. It exploded again around 1970 and for decades we, in Australia, heard about the Catholics and the Protestants of Northern Ireland in nearly every news bulletin. Do we today hear those news bulletins? Vanished. Evaporated. Why? Because they (the UK govt.) introduced multi-member PR. The culture, and 70 years of political outrages and sectarian bitterness, didn’t evaporate; the Cs and Ps are still there and they surely didn’t suddenly decide to be best friends. How has this sudden peace been achieved? By installing a political structure that has been known to work.

    Three thousand people died in the Irish “troubles.” Did they die because of the religion, because of the culture? No. They died because the electoral system was faulty. Had the electoral system been multi-member PR they’d be alive today and their families and the rest of the world wouldn’t know anything about any troubles. So all that talk about Catholics and Protestants was irrelevant. Utterly irrelevant.

    Similarly, PNG would today be a prosperous country with a sound infrastructure if Australia had taken its administration duties seriously. No one today would be alleging that it had an inferior culture. Culture is irrelevant: nothing in the new Irish PR reflects those two religions and nothing in a putative PNG PR would reflect its alleged cultural features—just as, indeed, there is no reflection of the culture in PNG’s present dysfunctional structure. Culture is immaterial to political structure. It is just a red herring.

    In the case of PNG the blather about culture is arrogant and self-serving but it wouldn’t matter if it were flattering. Culture is irrelevant.

    • Mike, you say: ‘… PNG would today be a prosperous country with a sound infrastructure if Australia had taken its administration duties seriously. No one today would be alleging that it had an inferior culture. Culture is irrelevant: nothing in the new Irish PR reflects those two religions and nothing in a putative PNG PR would reflect its alleged cultural features—just as, indeed, there is no reflection of the culture in PNG’s present dysfunctional structure. Culture is immaterial to political structure. It is just a red herring.

      In the case of PNG the blather about culture is arrogant and self-serving but it wouldn’t matter if it were flattering. Culture is irrelevant.’
      I don’t know what experience you have about rural PNG but from my experience, to try and understand PNG one must first try to understand the local culture. While experiences elsewhere will be an indication of what might work and what may not, no two nations, let alone a nation so recently cobbled together, can replicate similar cultural circumstances.

      To understand traditional PNG, you must put on PNG coloured glasses and sit down around the camp fire and listen. Those people who wear suits and ties and perform at exalted levels would still like to be back in the village if they could only have the material benefits and lurks and perks of their present position. In this they are really no different than almost any other culture. Look at the growing ‘Grey Nomad’ existence and where some with high pressure jobs then opt out and have a ‘tree change’ or a ‘sea change’.

      I have no idea where you were around the early 1970’s but at the time I was living on PNG outstations. Australia as a nation was certainly not very aware of PNG apart from the exotic and dramatic stories that occasionally surfaced and still do today. The Australian government was caught in a web that was cast by the UN (after Sir Hugh Foot visited and gave his very British pontifications and the remonstrations of recently independent African nations), and wanting to appease the small group of local agitators who wanted power now and not in a structured and progressive way. PM Whitlam just took the easy way out and accelerated what was the accepted UN format for a political system and parliament at the time.

      To contrast PNG with Northern Ireland is about as useful as comparing apples to oranges. Religion was not a factor unless it was a potentially unifying factor.

      Sorry mate. Your view about PNG culture being irrelevant is way off the mark. Why would multi person electorates be any different than having the current overlap of Regional and local electorates? It’s just duplication of the same problem.

  • So they found four factors that are “massive inhibitors of development.” You say you find them compelling and you talk of the first of them: the culture one. You mention “…extreme historical, geographic and cultural diversity… absence of any strong sense of national identity and by weak political and social cohesion… Informal institutions prevail over formal institutions. Politics is shaped by the ‘big man’ culture…”

    I think all this is irrelevant. Everyone talks about PNG’s dysfunctional culture. What is your employer, AusAid, going to do about it? Nothing. No one expects it to interfere in a foreign county’s culture. So why talk about it? Because it is the perfect excuse? Because no matter how ineffectual AusAid is, it can always blame the victim? My culture is superior to your culture—this is the core of colonialism. I submit that it is actually incorrect and that, given a chance, Melanesian ambitiousness would sustain a flourishing democratic polity. But it has no chance.

    “Second, we may need to accept that the issue in PNG is not about the volume of aid but about how we can change institutions and the incentives of politicians.”

    Yes. Commenter Paul Oates says to learn from history. He’s right but not regarding his preconceptions of culture. The history lesson concerns institutions and is very clear: a majoritarian electoral system is poison and combined with a single chamber of parliament it is deadly poison.

    At present Vanuatu, the Solomons and PNG are competing to be the first country in the world to create a viable polity with single-member electorates and a single chamber. If they pull this off (despite their inferior cultures) they will succeed where New Zealand failed, Mauritius failed, and Northern Ireland failed. At the time PNG was being set up, New Zealand was regretting abolishing its upper house two decades before, Mauritius was under a state of emergency, and Northern Ireland was in flames. Failure to learn from history, indeed.

    In a post on 5.10.12 Christine Stewart reckons the fatal flaw is the power of the speaker. No. That is just a particular manifestation. Fix that and there’d be something else. With an upper house the lower house speaker would be neutered and all those cavalier laws would be subject to a second debate. There are twelve established democratic countries which have a single parliamentary chamber. They are successful–but all of them have multi-member electorates. NZ and NI are now among them.

    PNG culture is beside the point. PNG is afflicted with a political structure that does not work with any culture.

    “Third, we should (finally) give up the assumption that ‘building the capacity’ of individuals and organisations in the government will make a difference to service delivery on the front line.”

    Absolutely. All this does is sustain useless courses and conferences. As long as the institutions and incentives are not right it is plastering over the cracks and ignoring the foundations. You say “Our objective here could be ‘stability at minimum cost’.” When the junta takes over the cost will be incalculable.

    Your fourth and fifth points, admitting the state has failed, are proposals to run it for them. It doesn’t sound like much of a plan for a country of seven million. Give a million dollars to each MP? Does wealthy Australia work by bribery? To mining companies a million is small potatoes and when they are ready, the Chinese bribes are going to make it appear paltry. A premise of your post is that donor money talks but when the time comes the politicians will probably be able to thumb their noses at donors as insignificant.

    For wantoks to morph into citizens simply introduce multi-member electorates. There is no prospect of a “journey to statehood” while they have a non-viable political structure. They are on a journey to civil war or coup d’etat. In hoping for this morph I think you have a change of culture in mind. Set up viable institutions and the culture will evaporate as a conversation topic.

    Says Tony O’Dowd: “The real question is why do donors end up selecting governance modalities in PNG that have consistently been shown not to work”

    He makes various plausible suggestions but I think it is pretty simple: AusAid and academics specialising in the Pacific are doing fine. Advocating such a radical thing as changing the constitution is disruptive and any individual who does it will be disapproved of.

    Yet it is essential. It is the lesson of history.

    • Hi Mike,

      I agree with you about AusAID always having the perfect cop out on why their policies aren’t working yet what are the alternatives? You are also right about other aid ‘givers’ being able to direct their aid in ways that enhance their own political objectives without having to be answerable to a fickle or ignorant electorate.

      To make generalised observations about such a broad topic as ‘culture’ is always going to offend some who have differing perspectives. The political system bequeathed to PNG at Independence was not in any way tailored to the accepted norms of the day. It was only accepted by the ‘Norms’ of Canberra and the UN. Australia just did not have much choice about what it set up given the accepted methodology of those who dabbled. Those who inherited the system also didn’t have much choice as well.

      I suggest that PNG politics is starting to come of age. Every nation goes through a political learning curve and PNG started a lot later than some. It is indicative of the resilience and fibre of the PNG people that they are moving forward politically a whole lot faster than other nations who started out a whole lot sooner and have come to grief.

      I agree with you about the conferences and seminars that only provide a few high priced consultants with self-actualising methodologies and a few locals with a free lunch. The only way around that oxymoronic, ephemeral outlook is to have pre set defined objectives and an effective feedback loop to ensure the objectives are met. Of course the objectives must be practical and achievable otherwise if you set a target predicated on BS you’ll undoubtedly be able to easily achieve your aim.

      I believe PNG is on the cusp of breaking through the culture clash of the past where imposed political systems didn’t meet local objectives. Today’s modern and educated PNGian now has an opportunity to make changes for the future based on the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. That opportunity was not previously available in a PNG context.

      However, as far as Melanesian culture ‘evaporating’ as a significant factor in PNG politics, I beg to differ. While ever 85% of the population is still living in a rural existence without any real recourse to any other way of life and general education opportunities only now starting to be resurrected, the culture of the clan and tribe will be prevail.

  • Hi Graham,

    A very interesting article and some really relevant aspects about PNG you raise from the ODI Report.

    At the risk of being controversial, it seems that ol’ George Santayana was right on the money when he observed; ‘Those that turn their back on history are doomed to repeat it.”

    You only have to look at nations elsewhere that had to coalesce from various disparate origins and become a unified nation in order to advance. Until PNG becomes a unified nation, there are too many conflicting influences and influencers pushing and pulling the country’s priorities and resources apart.

    Australia is one of the few countries that didn’t have a civil war before becoming unified (to some extent anyway I grant you depending on which state side you barrack for). It took two wars and a defeat like Gallipoli to turn us into a semi unified nation.

    Turn back the clock and look at England after the Norman conquest or Europe in the Middle Ages. Italy needed a Garibaldi to effect unification and then hand his conquest over to a civilian authority without succumbing to the lure and glory of becoming a dictator when he had the power and opportunity.

    PNG has never had enough time to evolve into anything more than a fragmented and artificially cobbled together entity due to political connivance and lack of understanding by those on both sides of the Torres Strait and in those in the UN who pushed Independence on the people before they were fully prepared. No wonder that there are so many parallels on the former colonies in Africa.

    Perhaps PNG does need a totally different form of government to the Westminster system that clearly does not work in a PNG context. Mind you, some would observe it may not be working in many other countries as well.

    Recently, two ANU academics wrote about what did work in PNG (see here) [pdf]. The notion of what clearly did work in rural PNG could well be work another look. It was only got rid of by those who did not know what they had and provided no other viable option.

  • I suspect this question is probably not the right one to ask. The question should not be what can donors do in governance in PNG. The real question is why do donors end up selecting governance modalities in PNG that have consistently been shown not to work, at least in terms of generating service delivery outcomes? Potential answers to this question quickly lead one to speculation on what really drives investment choices, what activities do managers (both PNG and donor) consider constitutes good governance, and why? What makes managers opt for the Henry Ford approach to choice? As in, “you can have any innovative governance model you like, as long as it is ends up being advisers and public financial management capacity building”.

    Is it conceivable that maintaining good contacts in the centralised bureaucracy and enhancing donor abilities to assemble defensible budget numbers might actually be a donor preference over delivering on provincial service delivery objectives? Often the argument is mounted that boosting corporate and central functions inevitably leads to better service delivery, but there is really not much evidence to support that proposition. So how many donor investments and advisers actually work on specific service delivery vs how many work on boosting central or corporate policy functions? Why do we select the options that we do?

  • Graham Thanks for this interesting blog and analysis. I agree that donors need to look outside central government to help get basic service to PNG citizens. I think there are a number of options out there but I agree with Julia and Tess that there’s no evidence that giving extra funds to MPs is one of these.
    Experience from the private sector particularly mining companies suggests that they are willing to provide or subsidise basic health, education and infrastructure services for their work force and for communities in and around their geographic footprint areas. But they need government to be part of this service delivery system and to take a fair share of the responsibility for providing staff, facilities, and supplies. If there isn’t buy-in by government, local private enterprises will be left with these responsibilities and government will be off-the-hook in delivering on its responsibilities to its citizens. As Julia remarks with respect to community-driven development there is potential for private sector support for provision of basic services to be a catalyst for greater accountability at the local level — businesses supporting the provision of services could publish the details of agreements they reach with local authorities and also publish regular updates on how the parties are delivering on those agreements. Donors like AusAID could look for ways to be a catalyst and supporter of service delivery partnerships with the private sector — I know AusAiD is already doing some of this, but the very poor state of service delivery in PNG suggests the agency could do more to respond to the Aid Effectiveness Review’s recommendation on reconsidering how it balances financial and development risks.

  • A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away I was in a class trying to learn computer programming. Some of the students got very frustrated with the computer not doing what we were trying to tell it to do so we kept rerunning the same program time and time again until the instructor ordered us to stop, saying that the same program can be run as many times as we want but will always yield the same erroneous result. We needed to change the program if we wanted the computer to give different results. It seems after years of development work that development practitioners can use a little beginning computer science class. This little article gives out the same warning as that instructor a long time ago. I really appreciate the fresh insight.

    In particular I would like to point out the final point — giving MPs a sum to spend as they want on their constituents. The orthodoxy for years has been that this practice, under the pejorative term of pork barrel, is very bad and any developing country should try as much as it can to eliminate that type of spending and to bring all expenditures under the Executive budget. This is the first time that I know of anyone has mentioned that it might be a good idea. Of course, doing that requires a lot of conditions but this is truly thinking outside the box and an idea worth pursuing.

  • Thanks for a very interesting blog which raises a number of valuable insights. I would like to comment on your fifth and sixth points.

    It is difficult to see why ‘giving $1 m to an MP with strict conditions’ will be any more effective than giving many millions into departmental budgets and trying to apply strict conditions. Although there may be some value in spreading the money out more widely. We know that when our strict conditions aren’t relevant to local ways of operating, they will be subverted. Given that MPs already get around $5 million through DSIP, it would seem an extra $1 million with ‘strict conditions’ may not be that attractive. It also seems to play into the ‘winner takes all’ mentality which is part of the problem.

    Thanks for raising the option of CDD, this deserves greater prominence in aid to PNG. CDD can directly support the the interests and aspirations of disadvantaged communities. There is also a good evidence base on the value of supporting inclusive participation where women and men, poorer families and wealthier families agree on priorities for development and how they will hold each other accountable for progress. You suggest CDD is bypassing government systems, but it shouldn’t be. It is about creating an environment where communities have the opportunity to build responsive and accountable local governance within the country’s systems and policies.

    CARE Australia, with funding from AusAID, is piloting a range of community driven approaches in remote and disadvantaged areas in PNG. We are optimistic that this program will provide a good base of experience to tackle some of the most entrenched poverty in PNG. We are not bypassing government in this program, but engaging local, district and provincial government as appropriate.

    The “fundamental purpose of Australia’s aid program is to help people overcome poverty”, this should be the starting point for any aid expenditure.

    • Julia, I also agree that the idea of giving MPs more money to disperse with ‘strict conditions’ is problematic not only for the reasons you identify but also because if (or when) the strict conditions are not complied with, what is the means by which the conditions will be applied and by whom? There is no shortage of rules about who can spend public funds on what but in the absence of meaningful enforcement procedures they are largely ineffective and simply adding more does not improve things and quite likely makes it worse

  • Thanks Graham for this post which I found thought provoking and which I am sure will prompt numerous comments. I agree with you that a ‘more of the same’ approach is not what is needed in this context (if indeed it is needed in any context) and also, as someone put it to me very succinctly the other day, ‘the state is not the main game in town’. However, further to Terence Woods post on Making Bureaucracies Work and discussion following, it seems to me that what is missing from this analysis is a recognition that state mechanisms can indeed be supported (by identifying and supporting normative champions who can then develop normative communities around them) through flexible, agile and nuanced activities grounded in meaningful relationships as nurtured over time – surely this is the key to ‘building on what’s there’.

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