How politics keeps Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea poor and poorly governed

A candidate's poster from the 2017 PNG election (Credit: Terence Wood)
A candidate's poster from the 2017 PNG election (Credit: Terence Wood)

The Western Melanesian countries of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG) are both poor and poorly governed. Anyone who has spent any time in either country will have seen how governance woes contribute to the countries’ poverty. Their governments neglect essential infrastructure. Dysfunctional bureaucracies impede legitimate businesses and let other businesses get away with causing harm. Health and education systems are poorly run.

This much is obvious. What is less well understood is the way the two countries’ politics contribute to their governance woes. In my new Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies paper I explain that many of the governance problems in the two countries stem from their clientelist politics.

In elections in clientelist polities voters don’t vote in search of better public policy, or on the basis of how well the country is being governed. Rather, they vote for candidates they think will help them directly if they win. This has the effect of selecting and incentivising members of parliament (MPs) to focus on delivering direct benefits to their supporters back in their electorates rather than running the national government well.

The effects of this are obvious. In both countries, funds that MPs can spend at their discretion within their electorates have grown at the same time as government departments have been underfunded. In both countries, ministers often pay little attention to the government departments they are supposed to be running. Ministers are rarely punished for poor performance. Bureaucracies are not subject to political pressure to improve; they are neglected and demoralised.

It may sound like I am blaming voters in Solomon Islands and PNG for their countries’ governance woes. I’m not. I think voters who vote in search of personal or localised benefits in the two countries are voting perfectly reasonably. Voters’ decisions are reasonable because the states they live in are weak, while at the same time voters’ needs are acute. Voters need something from elections, and when the government can’t deliver it through better policy and better services, all they can hope for is direct assistance from MPs.

You might ask why voters don’t vote for better governance to solve this problem. It might take longer but it would bring greater benefits in the end. The problem is that individual voters, or families, or communities, or even electorates, don’t control the quality of national governance. At best, all they can do is elect one MP out of many (50 in Solomon Islands and 111 in PNG), and one MP can’t change the country on their own.

We’ve resolved this particular problem in countries like Australia through strong national political parties that translate individual preferences into national action. However, these were formed in a very particular environment associated with the industrial revolution and the rise of national social movements. In the mostly rural, fragmented countries of Solomon Islands and PNG, nothing equivalent exists.

And so we have the clientelism trap. Because Solomon Islands and PNG are poor, underdeveloped countries, people vote for members of parliament who they think will help them directly. This, in turn, creates perverse political incentives and contributes to the continuation of poor governance and poverty.

There are exceptions of course: voters who strive to find candidates who will help the country, and members of parliament who focus on national issues despite the incentives. There are also politicians whose corruption cannot be explained away by political incentives. And there are other problems including mining and logging money. But the trap I’ve outlined above is a key feature of the political economy of Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. And – because of its self-reinforcing nature – it’s going to be very difficult to shift.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are many people in both countries who want to bring change. In recent years I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a lot of them. I don’t know what their pathway to success is, but I think positive change is possible if they can successfully engage in national collective action.

Aid can also play a helping role in both countries. It won’t change either country’s political economy, but if it’s given intelligently it will help hold key government institutions together, providing space for change to emerge from within. If given cognisant of the realities of Solomon Islands and PNG’s political economies, aid can also help to provide services and to ameliorate human suffering for the time being.

In the short-term, aid can help if it’s given well. In the long-term, change will come even if the clientelism trap will be hard to escape.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, debate and discussion. It is based on the author’s article in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, ‘The clientelism trap in Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and its impact on aid policy‘. All articles in the journal are free to read and download.

image_pdfDownload PDF

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.


    • Thank you Fabian, BS, and John for your comments.

      BS – your comment is interesting, but personally, I don’t think less democracy would help. If the political incentives are wrong in a democracy they’re equally likely to be wrong in an autocracy. And rulers would be even less accountable.

      John – thanks for an interesting reflection. I guess where I differ from you is that, on the basis of the quality of provincial government in much of the two countries, I don’t think that that level of decentralisation would have been much better. The DSIP/CDFs are an interesting example of even greater decentralisation. In the electorates/constituencies where they work, they are certainly suggestive that this level of decentralisation might work better for some tasks, if only it could be pulled away from the politicised distribution that plagues these funds.

  • A compelling piece. This is where democracy fails miserably. Seven hundred languages and 1000 different cultures, like it or not, you need something more stringent, more controlled, precise and tough to get things moving in the right direction for the benefit of all.

    • Great piece. In terms of solutions we know that political systems are a complex adaptive systems. So the solutions would probably be simpler and be focused around changing constraints.

      One of the most likely constraints to tweak would be the number of MP’s in the system. You could start tweaking that and then let the feedback cycle kick in.

      Quick thought experiments:

      – What if you started slowly reducing the number of seats election by election?
      – What would happen if you got down to 11 seats, 7 seats, 3 seats etc.?

      The issue is it’s difficult to predict what the unintended negative consequences could be so you’d need to have some way of creating a mass sensor network to provide real time feedback from the system.

      What would the unintended negative consequences be?
      What would the unintended positive consequences be?
      How would you mitigate against these?

      Just wondering if there is a way to test these out in a safe to fail experiment.

  • Terrence Wood,
    Great piece, it accurately reports the system and how the governments of both PNG and Solomon Islands have deteriorated post-political independence. For us to see changes, these countries must vote new and educated leaders with a new way of thinking and with respect to the rule of law and to accord respect to the sanctity to parliament itself and the responsibility it must hold for its citizens. Having said that, both countries must start to do away with pre-colonial leaders who have somehow used politics to amass wealth to mismanagement of states assets and funds. The core of this problem is the system of government these countries have adopted or were forced to adopt (Westminster system of government), for example in PNG’S case — and I assume the Solomon Islands — is no different. I have lived in both countries and I can remember some of our leaders, like Sir John Guise, clearly preferred a system of government that decentralised its powers to the provinces and local level governments. This was to address the vast diversity of peoples of PNG and make them more accountable. However, in PNG’S case, the Australian government was advocating a system like their very own where Canberra is in charge. Eventually that was the system adopted by PNG. Both countries also suffer from a form of pre-colonial influence. Australia must learn not to meddle in PNG’S affairs especially in the area’s of minerals and its resources where there is basically next to no policing of the environmental damage by its company, Rio Tinto and others under different names. In the system of government proposed by Sir John Guise, aid would be sent direct to the provinces and their government for their original intent and purposes. This would stop the current Prime Minister and his gang of robbers from laying their hands on it. All they would get instead is a piece of paper saying the funds had been received by the province and being used for their purposes. This is where the decentralised system would have worked for PNG not the system we have. But I guess Canberra wanted this system so they could still keep a colonial presence asserted through economic partnerships. The one big negative to that is the Ned Kelly’s in Waigani have worked out a way of diverting aid into their own pockets. You don’t have to look far. Starting from the founding leaders (with due respect) right across the board. How did these people become overnight millionaires? They have manipulated our system, using that clientelism you mention to their advantage, proving that system does not suit the Melanesian way. The Presidential system perhaps is the one for us? Anyway, it is great that a postmortem has been done on these countries, the challenge now is in fixing them and definitely not with more aid to Waigani or next to the old G Club in Honiara. Peace.

  • If I may put in a plug, and just to follow up on Amanda’s comment, Colin Wiltshire and I will be providing an update on our research into constituency development funds in Solomon Islands at this year’s State of the Pacific Conference (10-12 September at ANU). We’ll also be hearing from Tony Hiriasia from the School of Government, Development and International Affairs at USP on his own research into CDFs in Solomons, and from Angela Nelson, Women’s Representative on the Milne Bay Provincial Assembly and Alotau District Development Authority, Papua New Guinea.

    Registration is open here:

  • Dr Terence Wood, thank you for this most interesting blog post.

    Your post reminded me of the interesting research being done at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs ( ) on the discretionary funds that Members of Parliament (MPs) are allocated.

    For instance, Colin Wiltshire and Thiago Cintra Oppermann explained that people in PNG do not expect services or projects to reach them if they reside in villages which did not support the successful candidate (see ).

    In the Solomon Islands, the discretionary funds available to MPs are amongst the largest in the world, according to James Batley (see ).

    It certainly seems to be an area worthy of further investigation.

    Dr Amanda H A Watson
    Australian National University

  • Thank you Terrence,
    This is very true in Solomon Islands.What else can we say or do?This is like a link that transform from our ancestor to this modern world.

  • Hi everyone,

    Thank you for your comments. They’re all interesting and thoughtful. Unfortunately I have encountered unexpected health issues and so cannot give the comments the time they deserve at present. I’ll do my best to return to them as soon as possible.


  • Thanks Terence for this piece

    As a learned citizen of this country-PNG, what you have described did developed into a conventional electoral politics now unlike in the 70s and 80s. There is one common character shared by both PNG and SI that gave rise to this clientelism politics.

    That common shared cultural character remains in our blood system and it will not change in the near future-Melanesian way of life!. Not even foreign aid will improve that, even if the aid is tied to specific condition to improve clientelism politics.

    Therefore, to change this clientelism politics, it has to change from within ourselves-change our way of thinking and character. This would come with a new crop of leaders or citizens that can think differently -for an equitable governance and better life. If the aid programme were guided in this approach would be an ideal option.

    Otherwise, time will tell when this clientelism politics will continue until it blows out of proportion-rise in poor governance and worsen poverty across the country and citizens started to question each other and their leaders. This is the moment our electoral politics will change.

    Changing the election laws or improving the electoral system or introducing ID for voters will not change. It may work well in other countries but not in a Melanesian society where electoral politics is intertwined with cultural character, norms and values.

    To understand poor governance and poverty in an island countries like PNG and SI, one would need to go down that path of understand what is all about Melanesian politics. Currently clientelism politics is a stronghold status quo in PNG now.

    • Thank you JK Domyal,

      The question of whether the cultures of Sols and PNG cause their clientelism is an interesting one. If you’re interested in reading two different perspectives, the papers from Tony and Tobias that I linked to under James Batley’s comment make for very interesting reading.

      Thanks again


  • Terence Wood, You have hit the nail on the head.

    PNG is currently not run with fairness in terms of Annual Budget fund allocations on timely basis.

    In the 20 years most Government run services hardly received annual full funding right across the country.

    Therefore it was very difficult for all citizens in accessing better services at all times.

    • Thanks Titus,

      I agree, if people had better services their electoral choices could be very different. The challenge is how to build better services in the midst of clientelist politics.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  • Liked the analysis of the impacting of electoral politics on provision of public goods and services in SOI. Was useful for our analysis of fiscal resource constraints of Provincial governments for their assignment to deliver public goods and services.

  • I work in the Solomon Islands and recognise this is the #1 issue preventing sustainable development. To cange there needs to be major awareness campaigns in the villages. The SI government through the way it distributes the Rural Development Fund and MP termination oayments supports tbe status quo.

  • Thanks for this good article. This is a point I make a lot regarding politics in PNG. Sadly I think for many areas of PNG there is a downward spiral of fatalism. Many people I know believe most or all politicians will be corrupt and so they vote for their own tribesmen or whoever promises the most to their tribe (including money for voting). They often do this while openly admitting that the person they vote for will not be a good leader, but again since they believe there are few or no truly good leaders they want whoever will help them specifically the most. In fact as each group of corrupt or inept leaders continue to make the country worse in terms of economy and service provision it further drives people’s desperation to benefit in some way making them ardent supporters of whoever promises them the most directly…. hence the downward spiral continues.

  • Nice piece, Terence.

    I’m interested in your views as to prospects for escaping clientelism. I would say that nearly every country initially suffered from clientelist politics. This seems the rule rather than the exception.

    While you posit bottom up social movements as the driver of change, lots of the most interesting recent literature has been about developmental clientelism (in which clientelism persists, but still leads to efficiency enhancing reallocations of social resources because patronage is productively used) and the role of elite pacts (stable elite pacts allow for the institutionalization of inter-elite bargains in ways that eventually lead to the emergence of an independent state and different types of electoral accountability – best exposition of this would be North, Wallis, Weingast).

    Do you think we need bottom up social movements or just lots more time and stable elite pacts? How compelling is the evidence on bottom up social movements relative to the elite pact arguments? Or are they somehow compatible? (Dan Slater argues that the threat of violence from bottom up movements actually forced East Asian elites into tighter elite bargains, therefore supporting greater state effectiveness – but a channel between social movements and state effectiveness quite different from the one you suggest).

    Interested in your thoughts.

    • Thanks Tobias – great comment.

      I agree with you when you say almost every country started with clientelist politics. The fact that some now have programmatic politics is in encouraging in that it suggests the trap can be escaped.

      My belief (I’m not certain) in the necessity of bottom-up change involving sustained collective action stems from:
      (a) the obvious collective action problem that currently confronts voters
      (b) the role bottom up change has played in some other countries’ transitions (or partial transitions) from clientelist politics (Brazil is the case I know best, but the progressive era in US politics is another example, and — I’d argue — so is the transformation associated with the rise of labour movements in countries like the UK.)

      However, I agree there are alternative pathways out of clientelist politics. Simply getting wealthier appears to decrease propensity to vote in search of private goods or club goods. This then raises the question, could Sols and PNG find developmental clientelist politics involving more stable elite pacts and the like. It’s possible, but it would need a completely different sort of clientelism from that we currently see. Not to mention a dramatic change in the political landscape more broadly. And it’s very hard to imagine what would bring such change about. Perhaps a lot of migration, and raised incomes from that?

      As for the Slater argument, the contextual differences just seem too different for that to be relevant to Western Melanesia, I think.

      At some point a “Pathways out of clientelist politics” forum would be a great event in which to discuss this more.

  • Thank you for this succinct and insightful article. Ironically, Sir Nagora Bogan, the PNG University of Technology Chancellor, and candidate for Lae in Morobe province depicted in the picture, was cheated out of a seat by a lack of clientelism.

    Someone outside Morobe province paid a thug to burn the ballots where he was bound to get most votes, the PNG University of Technology voting station. They also interfered with the ballot boxes in his village, and the Lae voting station was occupied by armed men for several hours. He lost by a few hundred votes. If the clients’ votes would have been counted, he would have won.

    Aid can help create conditions for more inclusive and democratic institutions, rather than extractive institutions benefiting the few. The last elections in PNG in 2017 where a shambles. Aid should have helped to create a proper ID card and voter registration system and a strong electoral commisison, but the PNG government did not want this. This would significantly reduce the opportunities to manipulate the results. Australia lacked the nerve to insist.

Leave a Comment