Management of natural disasters in PNG — not all bad news

Delivering food aid when there are no roads, PNG 1997 (Flickr/DFAT/Darren Hilder, Aust Defence)

Allen and Bourke provide a detailed analysis [pdf] of the government of Papua New Guinea’s response to the El Niño events of 1972 and 1997, concluding that it was unfair to expect the PNG government to act in the same manner that a more developed western nation would. Rather, Australia and Papua New Guinea should make policy together, drawing on their own strengths and weaknesses.

Allen and Bourke note that during the 1997 event the following factors militated against a successful disaster response:

  • Low morale in the PNG Defence Force due to the Bougainville conflict.
  • A weak National Emergency Service.
  • No clear reporting arrangements in the bureaucracy.
  • Relief allocation was made on the basis of number of people in the electorate (and via the open member) rather than based on technical assessments.
  • No clear agency for donors to liaise with.
  • No transparent trust account in place to deposit relief funds into.

Without doubt the current El Niño event of 2015–2016 has brought a great deal of suffering to many of the most vulnerable people, in some of the most remote parts of Papua New Guinea. However, when you look closely at the Government of Papua New Guinea’s response in relation to the factors highlighted by Allen and Bourke, one can see that significant strides have been made.

Unlike the 1997 disaster, there is now a well-established National Disaster Office which has worked hard with provincial administrations to establish provincial disaster committees filtering down to district disaster committees. However, co-ordination and leadership has clearly come from the Department of Prime Minister and National Executive Council (NEC). The Deputy Secretary has assumed full responsibility and supported the National Disaster Office. Relief supplies are being distributed on the basis of assessments made by the National Disaster Office.

Not unlike all other countries that are heavily dependent on the resource sector, Papua New Guinea is facing tough economic times. The arrival of El Niño placed more strain on a budget that was already under pressure. Despite this, in late 2015 the NEC allocated K25 million to disaster relief. By November 2015, half of that had been spent. Unlike in 1997, the government responded relatively quickly.

Given the budget constraints, the other source of potential funding was the District Services Improvement Program (DSIP). In late 2015, the Minister of Finance authorised the expenditure of K2 million from the DSIP to fund disaster relief. Whilst this brings with it its own problems (see this blog post from Wiltshire and Oppermann for more details), it was arguably a way to quickly deliver money directly to districts in the current economic climate.

Open members will be held accountable for the decisions that the local District Development Authority makes at the next general election. Although imperfect, this is the ultimate form of accountability in a modern democracy.

It is also interesting to note that the National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) had been raising the alarm for some time. NARI had been warning government of the possibility of another El Niño event. However, faced with other strong competing priorities (such as fee free education and large infrastructure projects), it was always going to be difficult for NARI to secure more funding to develop drought or frost resistant crops and undertake more farmer education. It is only now that NARI’s voice is being heard.

This is not to say that it has all been smooth sailing. As pointed out by Trevor Meauri, the Deputy Secretary for the Department of Prime Minister and NEC, the delivery of relief supplies is difficult. Some of the hardest hit villages are accessible only by air and can only be serviced by small aircraft. Often the cost of transportation far outweighs the cost of the food itself.

However, a lot has been learnt and clearly the management of the current El Niño event has not been all bad news.

Felicity Herbert is a policy and legal advisor in the Governance Program and is working with the Department of Prime Minister and National Executive Council in Papua New Guinea. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Australian Government or Coffey International Development.   

Felicity Herbert

Felicity Herbert is a policy and legal advisor in the Governance Program and is working with the Department of Prime Minister and National Executive Council in Papua New Guinea.


  • I’m afraid Felicity Herbert has provided a very rose-tinted perspective on the PNG Government’s performance in responding to the 2015-16 El Nino induced drought, which can only be described as too late, too little and inappropriately applied. The responsiveness and capacity of the National Disaster centre during the last major El Nino period of 1997/8 was better, including the readiness to request external assistance in a timely manner, without finding this a matter for shame. The shame comes from the delay and continued delays until lately, including the recognition that it’s not a case simply of dishing food or funds to districts or main centres, but getting it delivered to those in need mostly in very remote locations. The churches (and some NGOs, plus the wider community of PNG – or wantoks) were markedly ahead in the game, both in undertaking assessments and responding to need, especially in remoter locations, but clearly their resources were limited. That said, some provinces and districts and some public sector workers have certainly been performing better and substantial effort in supporting their communities in time of need. The drought affected the whole country to varying degrees, although the impact was only potentially catastrophic in some areas, and for some communities and especially for those most at risk (notably young children, nursing mothers, the elderly etc). Good work was undertaken in some provinces and districts, but these weren’t necessarily those most severely impacted, and there was much greater need to target the limited resources to those in greatest need, or where the drought (and frost) impact was continuing longest, and to ensure that the food and other support wasn’t misdirected to the less needy, or misappropriated by cronies along the way. All in all, whilst some commendation may be merited for some, many lessons must be learnt from this experience; the warnings were there and being given early on, and there was no reason to have ignored them until so late, even if big events were occurring. Budgets were certainly being squeezed from mid-year, but keeping Papua New Guinea’s population alive and healthy should surely be one of the highest priorities for a government, and be relatively shielded from the fiscal squeeze (except in terms of ensuring the cost effectiveness of the relief efforts), but with a readiness to ask for financial and logistical assistance to complement the domestic effort.

    • I agree with you Paul. It’s almost like the predictable government apologist responding to a genuine problem with a lot of bureaucratize and obfuscation.

      The real problem that many seem unable to get their head around is one of competency and lack of initiative. Waffling about what needs to be done never actually achieves anything more than revealing another political filibuster. Either there is an effective response to a problem or there isn’t. Saying that the local MP’s will suffer at the next election hardly helps those who desperately need help now.

      Of course outsiders often seem have a problem with ‘New Guinea time’ unless they themselves are prone to practice it.

  • Like other commenters, I am struggling to see the ‘not bad’ news in this. It’s all well and good to have a National Disaster Office, and some sort of systematic response from them… but it clearly hasn’t been enough. I found your point about the National Agriculture Research Institute raising the alarm, yet being ignored, particularly troubling. It shows that as long as these kinds of attitudes continue, history could well repeat. Having systems and institutions in place is one thing… mounting an effective response to a crisis, or better still trying to avoid one, is another thing altogether. And ultimately the response is what affects the people on the ground.

  • The allocation of drought relief from DSIP funds is, in my own opinion, a serious mistake and little more than a PR exercise. The lack of preparation and low priority given to this essential issue in human security is acknowledged in the article above, which admits that the PNG government chose to concentrate on other matters despite warnings from NARI and others. It is important to note in addition to this that in practice, very little has in fact been done to allocate funds to the drought.

    First, DSIP funds were already not restricted to the guidelines, so in practice what has happened is an announcement that existing funds could be allocated to drought relief – although this was already the case in practice. At the same time, the funding problems noted above – the competition between NARI and other sectors – are no less serious at the district level, where there are problems of over-commitment.

    Secondly, DDA’s supervision of DSIP spending is a nice theory, but in practice, DDAs are dominated by MPs and their affairs are not transparent. It is not clear how the average voter is supposed to assess their performance. The politicisation of DSIP spending also opens up the possibility of MPs being reelected precisely for distributing their drought relief to their own supporters.

    Thirdly, democratic principles are essential, but at the same time it is not reasonable to excuse an ineffective response to a crisis with the prospect of electoral punishment sometime in the future. By then, for some, it will be too late.

    Finally, if anything requires national planning and consolidated oversight, it is a response to a national disaster. Devolving responsibility for this to local authorities imposes on them a very onerous task. This might be described as a ‘passing the buck’, except that no new bucks are in fact being passed. In sum, serious questions should be asked about a decision to fund drought relief through DSIPs: it is not a secret to anybody, least of all O’Neill, that DSIPs are political in character.

  • Felicity,

    The PNG government’s response to the worst drought affecting their nation in the past two decades has been an unmitigated failure. As social media shows multiple cases of people literally starving in Western Province to argue that a ‘targeted’ response of a meagre 25 million Kina is not bad news is indefensible and offensive to the citizens of Papua New Guinea. The untargeted and unmanaged response through DSIP, where an MP from East New Britain has the same amount to spend as one from Hela or Western also needs much clearer justification. Is this the level of response the people of PNG should come to expect from their elected officials?

    Of course, I would be the first to admit PNG is in a very challenging fiscal situation, but this is where donors can help. External actors are poised to assist, and anywhere else in the world we would be calling this a humanitarian disaster. But lack of a diverse donor community in PNG, combined with a cautious Australian government has muted external criticism. There should be no shame in PNG admitting it needs external assistance to manage a disaster of this scale. Even developed country governments welcome external offers of cooperation in times of disaster. Meanwhile, families in Western Province and other drought struck regions will continue to suffer because of the PNG government’s pride in assuming it can do everything unassisted.

    The drought response in PNG has been nothing but bad news, and to say otherwise is an insult to those that have needlessly suffered in rural and remote parts of the country.


    • Jonathan,

      I absolutely agree with your comments and was about to say something similar.

      The work that Mike Bourke has been doing is excellent and I hope that the PNG authorities will draw more on his analysis to target relief.

      At the same time more details on the delivery of relief are needed: to facilitate coordination among disparate actors; to identify whether relief is getting to where it is needed; and to evaluate and correct the performance of various agencies.

      If the PM’s department has the data, then perhaps it could start by publishing a table in the newspapers of what relief is being provided and where (down to the village level) and a timetable of the roll out of ongoing relief.

      In terms of feedback, the photos shared by Sally Lloyd have had a powerful effect on relief efforts: perhaps shaking off some of the complacency. It would be good to get more stories and feedback from remote areas: how and where relief is getting through; where it’s not and why; how people are being affected etc. Perhaps this information and feedback challenge is something that PNG’s active social media can help solve–to drive accountability and better relief efforts.

      A lot more can and needs to be done.

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