Service delivery realities in Gulf Province, PNG

Service delivery in Gulf Province, PNG, requires a ‘never say die’ attitude. This is the motto for government and church service providers according to the Provincial Administrator. The PEPE Gulf survey team (see below) can confirm a great deal of truth behind these words after completing a representative survey of schools and health facilities across one of PNG’s most rural, remote and underdeveloped provinces. While experiencing the predictable dysfunction of a system struggling to implement new reforms in incredibly difficult circumstances, we also met some of PNG’s less-talked-about heroes operating at the end of a long service delivery chain that continue to teach many classes and provide basic health care to isolated communities.

Seeking to understand the impact of increasing revenues over the last decade in PNG at the service delivery frontline, the Promoting Effective Public Expenditure Project (PEPE), a joint venture of PNG’s National Research Institute (NRI) and ANU’s Development Policy Centre has just completed an expenditure tracking and facility survey covering more than 200 schools and about 150 health facilities. Eight teams covering a province each from each of PNG’s four regions have been conducting the survey since October. Many have been visiting very rural and remote locations only reachable by chartered flights, boat, and/or several days walk. The PEPE Project has attempted to visit the exact same schools and health facilities that were surveyed ten years ago as part of an NRI/World Bank Public Expenditure and Service Delivery Project to ensure direct comparability between both surveys. This post is a reflection on conducting the survey in Gulf Province.

The Gulf Provincial Administration was direct in their assessment of the province when meeting the survey team. Unwilling to skirt their responsibilities for ensuring health and education services reach the people under PNG’s decentralised system of service delivery, they acknowledge they have ‘let the people down’. Kerema, the provincial capital of Gulf, has been a ghost town for the better part of the last five years with poor road conditions disconnecting it from Port Moresby. Unsurprisingly, health and education indicators in Gulf Province rank among some of the worst in PNG. But the Administration has a new attitude and sense of purpose after launching their new development plan – ‘Gulf Vision 2020’. The province was full of enthusiasm for our survey team to experience first-hand the challenges its own officers face in delivering basic services.

Most of Gulf is only accessible by the open ocean and the multitude of channels connecting villages except for the large inland populations, Kantiba and Kotidanga, situated near the borders of Morobe and the Eastern Highlands Provinces. Travelling further west to Kikori District, the largest of the two districts that make up Gulf Province, is very difficult as the airstrip is not operational. The only option is to hire a dinghy with an outboard motor to travel in the open sea, which takes a day and over 100 litres of fuel, making the trip expensive, exhausting and often dangerous. The Survey Team made this arduous journey and on arrival in Kikori people asked us if we saw any signs of a dinghy that had supposedly gone missing along the same route we had travelled. The rumours were confirmed in the days that followed while implementing the survey in nearby villages as bodies were known to be washing up on the shoreline. It was alleged that at least five people had gone missing trying to transport themselves together with a live deer and cassowary from Kikori to Kerema. This was an ambitious journey, especially considering the cargo on board. The outcome was tragic but as we learnt this was not an isolated event. It was unsettling to hear the villagers describe the trip to Kerema as ‘taking your chances in the sea’, making our inevitable return trip a more daunting proposition.

Implementing the survey in this environment proved equally challenging. One of the most glaring observations from fieldwork was the number of schools closed since the previous survey was carried out ten years earlier. On a trip to West Kikori, closer towards the boarder of Western Province, the lack of schools and health facilities serving more remote populations became clearer. In our particular case, provincial and district officials assured us certain schools and health facilities were operational but when we visited we found they had been closed for at least five years. We had to travel in the dinghy (pictured left) up a river known to have many crocodiles to get to this village and were taken aback by casual fleeting comments from parents such as “sometimes the crocodiles take the small children”. The lack of access to basic services became more apparent when we looked at our detailed map to see this particular village was hardly the most remote in West Kikori. We could not help to think if this village had no access to schools and health services then it would surely be at least the same or worse for the more remote villages.

While it might seem obvious that difficulties with transport and remoteness can have a crippling impact on the level of services provided, it is by no means the determining factor. A more easily accessible school, just five minutes off the main highway on the road to Kerema, was experiencing a rapidly decreasing enrolment rate despite a new double classroom recently built with donor funding. The school records showed official enrolment figures at the start of the year to be between 30-40 students per class, whereas class size was below ten students per class at the time of the survey. This was mainly due to chronic teacher absenteeism and ‘unknown’ reasons for not receiving school subsidy funding, leaving no operational funding as parents could not be charged school fees in an election year with a clear government policy of ‘free education’. Similarly, the aid post in the village, standing no less than 50 metres away, was closed despite a new health worker’s house built right next to it. Both health workers were present but had not been paid for two months and were told to close the clinic until more reliable funding could be accessed by the responsible church agency.

The team experienced entirely different circumstances upon approaching another school that was definitely receiving its school subsidy funding. Watching our dark blue land cruiser approaching the village, which looked a lot like a police vehicle, a group of people rushed to a dingy on the shore and set off into the sea. At the same time, disgruntled parents ran to the car yelling that the Head Teacher and School Board Chairman were escaping and demanding the team chase them down and arrest them. After explaining that we were not the police and the purpose of the team’s visit was to conduct a survey, we learnt there was a rumour that the police were coming to arrest the Head Teacher and School Board Chairman who had supposedly been misusing the schools funding.

In further cases of increased funding not translating into better services, the survey team visited a school and health centre near the Oilsearch Headquarters, the new LNG pipeline and forestry roads leading into the highlands. Despite better-looking infrastructure, the functioning of the school and health facility were not dissimilar from others surveyed in the rest of Gulf. A desperate lack of teachers, health workers and suitable houses persisted despite rumours that families were receiving hundreds of thousands of kina in royalties from the associated resource companies. It was also common across many villages to find unfinished District Services Improvement Program ‘DSIP’ infrastructure projects, commonly referred to as the Members’ projects (since the funds are allocated to Members of Parliament). On the outside, the new classrooms or aid posts normally looked like a positive development. But all too often they lacked important features such as a connected water supply, chairs and tables and perhaps the most important feature of all – the workers. These incomplete projects were normally complemented with stories of serious delays and concerns over the competence of contractors.

We encountered a decaying service delivery system in Gulf Province that is unable to reliably ensure a teacher will be present and able to teach classes each weekday or that a health worker will have an operational clinic, drugs or lighting to treat a medical emergency at night. In place of a robust and well regulated system were individuals determined to ensure basic services persist despite all the problems. There were inspiring examples of retired and retrenched teachers and health workers that continue to help communities when no other services are provided. There are also cases of teachers and health workers that go well beyond their official duties.  The survey team met a dedicated Head Teacher at a remote school in Kikori who teaches all classes at her Primary School (Grade 3 – 8), as she is the only one left. She has also volunteered to be the community health worker for the past few years, as there is no health worker in the village despite a new aid post built over a year ago that that has not been used due to a dispute between government and church officials. Instead, this selfless teacher operates a health service out of her house, providing basic drugs and advice for sick people in her village. When asked about subsidies received for her school, the value seemed insignificant compared to the time and expense to access the funds. For the Head Teacher and the School Board Chairman, the closest bank is Port Moresby, which takes them at least a week to get there and back and would cost around 3000 Kina in travel expenses, not to mention risking their lives out at sea, something this incredibly dedicated teacher and health worker has done many times.

Our return trip back to Kerema proved more challenging. The prospect of rougher seas saw us use the river channels, which are calmer and safer but much more indirect. Finally needing to confront the open ocean, we made an attempt to make it beyond the break but were swamped by waves requiring us to bail water out of the dinghy while we raced back to shore and finally conceded that it was safer to try again the next day. Stranded with all our gear, we walked along the shore to a village where some of our team had local contacts to arrange an overnight stay. During the evening we were told village sorcerers were unhappy and casting spells into the sea to make it rough because they are short of sugar and tea. Some of the team visited them to make a small offering.

The next day, however, the sea was still ominous and it was not until a respected village elder gave us his approval that the team and the skipper felt comfortable to make the journey. With half the village watching us this time, we waited patiently in shallow water for our opportunity to make another attempt to get past the break. Unlike the day before, this time we eventually made it out into the ocean encountering rough and choppy conditions. Despite the wind and rain, the skipper skilfully rode the dinghy up over the crest of large passing waves until we made it back to Kerema. Once the skipper knew we were safe, he let out a deafening howl of exhalation. As the team celebrated our arrival back to Kerema with the surveys completed and intact, we also reflected on the teachers and health workers who regularly take their chances in the sea to teach classes or deliver essential medicines when they could easily defect from their posts like so many others have and continue to do. They give the ‘never say die’ motto in Gulf Province a literal meaning and deserve increased support to keep holding up a fledging service delivery system.

Other survey teams visiting remote parts of PNG (including Morobe, Enga, Eastern Highlands, West Sepik and West New Britain) no doubt will have similar stories, and we look forward to bringing you some more of these soon. We are now at the debriefing, data cleaning and data entry stage for the survey. We will be analysing the results of the survey next year. One of our aims is to share the results with the provincial administrations such as Gulf, which did so much to help facilitate our work. We hope to be able to identify some practical proposals as well as a useful diagnosis.

Colin Wiltshire is the Devpolicy Program Manager for the PNG Promoting Effective Public Expenditure Project. He is also undertaking a PhD in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program at ANU.

Colin Wiltshire

Colin Wiltshire is a Research Fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. He conducts research on political economy aspects of development in Melanesia. Prior to completing his PhD on the politics of service delivery in PNG, he worked at AusAID where he served in Timor-Leste and PNG.


  • Thank you for this report. Your report is confirmed by the very few visits of the officers of the GPA and National Officers serving in the province. I sincerely hope the Provincial Administration has copies.

    If only Gulf had a road system that linked all stations and most villages. With this road system, services would easily be accessed. Schools and health facilities would remain open. Public servants would move to stations, towns and stores in villages that have the facilities to access their salaries, and return on the same day safely.

    From May to October, most government services are on hold. The rough weather and the rains make travel a personal choice of whether to live or die.

    Salaries are paid into bank accounts and have to be accessed where there are electronic banking facilities. Today the cost of teachers and public servants travel by dinghies is very expensive – one way. If they must return the same day, they will not have the basics to last till the next pay day.

    That is why teachers and public servants do not last in the remote places. In the mountains of the province they walk to Aseki in Morobe province for their banking needs, and whatever they can carry back.

    Those who have not lived in Gulf Province will not know, and so will continue to look down their noses at the province’s lack of progress. We who live here in the province have not given up, and will not give up – ever. With the Connect PNG road coming through from Wau and will be linking all the mountain stations to Kerema, and the road that has got as far as the East bank of Vailala River, and is now progressing from the Western bank – we can say “never die”

    We are praying and hoping that Papua and Pasca LNGs will help us get going – with roads, communication facilities and uplift of all our facilities – that will enable our teachers and public servants to continue to serve in the remote places. Then we can get off the bottom of the barrel.

  • From the time this report was written, has there been any progress or changes to the Gulf Province up till today, compared to the standard today, 2021

    • Totally agree with Keni Naika. I was wondering, if there were any changes since this 2016 report. Would be interested to see. Comparing it to current (2021).

  • This is very true and heart breaking for my very own home province. It is due to the mismanagement of funds from the provincial level to the village level as a results the hinterlands of the province has not developed. The fact is that the very own capital town of the province is still in the old and days infrastructural version where none of the new building had being erected by the current MPs since 45 years of Independence. So it is about time to rebuild the Province by the new young elites leaders of the province.

  • This is a clear indication of failure in service delivery mechanisms start from the National level down to Village level. Everyone that are responsible for doing the right thing have failed miserably and have not done their part with pride and passion to serve their nation. This is again a social slavery to your own people. Furthermore, PNG has a difficult topography or geographical setting that needs proper study in order to provide vital government services in partnership churches and NGOs.

  • Nothing is impossible if people and leaders put their minds to solving the service delivery disconnect affecting Gulf people. It would start with good determined people who have a heart for their people. In terms of the survey results I would like to see actual reasons why other than the apparent why there is a disconnect between government at Waigani and the rural health posts and community schools. I often wonder why government services during the colonial patrol officer days with limited gocernment resources achieved more. Maybe its also the system letting the people down.

  • Very sad and story of my home Province,Gulf. Thank you for this blog. We have a lot of work to do to turn the tide course for appropriate development slowly and progressively to meet the real world of changing times.

  • I think this is the case for most of the provinces in PNG. Despite the richness, we still lack the management skills and our attitude seriously needs attention. Suprisingly enough, it is our own people who are charged of managing the resources like time, money, etc and the users of the infrasture, procedures etc who abuse the system. If all indivuduals can make an effort to contribute positively to the good of the country, I believe progress in the delivery of goods and services can be achieved. Otherwise, we’ll still be developing …

  • I will be visiting PNG soon to gather information about a book I am writing about PNG. I worked there from 1964 to 1975 first in Port Moresby, then in Madang and later at the Dauli Teachers College near Tari. That College was established by a mission operating out of the Gulf region and I have recently interviewed one of the people who was there at the time about the work he did. I am hoping to include a chapter on changes in PNG since independence. Of course I want to make sure it will be a balanced account and it is so encouraging to hear about dedicated teachers and health workers continuing their activities despite the difficulties. Keep up the good work. It may take longer than we hope but it wll happen if people continue to work for it.

    I would appreciate hearing from anyone reading this message. My email address is



  • Ye it is very true. Gulf really went back in the 1990s, I use to be a teacher in Kaintiba are, we had all teachers from PNG. Pay is to e deleivered by pay run charters to small airstrips. and we would be there to collect them. then back to our schools. during the hoildays we floold in to kerema town show of strenght, of who were serving in the bush of gulf.

    Service delivery since, we realised were begining to cease, when Bosses in Kerema Began making their bases in Port moresby. Most of us transferd out, and made our way to positions of importance. if we were in Kerema we wouldn’t.
    But now we are more than prepared to work with teams in Kerema, just open your doors. The province is in better positions to make it work. Just get the plans in order.,

  • We the people of Gulf must mentally change our attitudes of asking MPs for money please..!! Money will never get us out of the way instead. You eat and use money but you will never change and improve in all areas of physical lives, therefore, we must all cry, beg and ask for services and new developments.

  • The relationship between Gulf Politicians and Administrators over the years was a mixed one. Service delivery machanism was affected and in the end the people suffered the most. The current MPs now have the crucial task to sort this out and make the system work…Maybe I’m barking the wrong tree here.

    But thank God for missionaries.

  • I can personally confirm that the health facilities and the service delivery in the rural areas of Gulf Province is near extinction. Being a health worker myself from the isolated mountains of Gulf-Kotidanga district (Kaintiba) I have felt the pain of living in Gulf and providing these services. The major problem lays between the Provincial health Department, and managers who relax and dream away on their comfortable chairs assuming that everything is just right. There is a lack of inspections, monitoring, and regular evaluation on the state and progress of service delivery. Furthermore, there is lack of funding, a shortage of staff, a lack of or no drug supplies, and no up skilling staff through in-services. These are all key contributing factors.

    Despite, the above problems I acknowledge the Church Services for whole hearted effot in proving the essential service on behalf. My appeal to PROVINCIAL DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH and people in authority is to wake up and look into the vision 2010-2020 health care implementation strategies and work hand in hand with NDoH to up grade and delivery quality services to the people. To those health care workers serving in other provinces it is by time we should return to service our own province and our own people rather than attending only for funerals. Today is the day for change or else we will be left behind. Thanks.

  • Sounds like an interesting trip. I have only started visiting PNG recently but from what I have seen so far this sounds quite familiar. One of the things I noticed about the facilities (that appeared to have been there for some time) I saw in the Islands region was that many of them were quite damaged. Some of this looked like damage caused by some kind of contact with an unrelated object but other damage looked like things that could be avoided (eg rotted out support beams from water entering from roof building) with an adequate maintenance program. Thanks for the post and it would be interesting to find out what all the surveys returned.

  • Gulf Province I am sad to say is like the rest of the Papua New Guinean Provinces, neglected and starved of money and resources,not to mention the women and men who can work to turn the Provinces around.It seems every body has left the Provinces for better lives for themselves and their families.We cannot blame them because they had to do what seems right for themselves.
    What saddens me is that the Provinces were given more then enough monies(over 30 years) but it is the governors (small g not capital G) who obviously misused all the money hence PNG with its Districts and Sub Districts have all ‘gone to the dogs’. Port Moresby has had to accommodate all the human beings from all these disfunctional and neglected districts and sub districts not to mention people from the many villages all over Papua New Guinea.
    I can only see PNG becoming another African country,the rich becoming richer on the backs of the millions of rural Papua New Guineans.It makes me so angry,when I know that there is enough money to start a come back to good and better living standards for the 30 years of misuse of all the millions – tens of millions and hundreds of millions and millions upon millions into billions.
    It is all needless, all this suffering something has to be done, God help us Gulf Karus- Papua New Guineans !!!

  • My family and I live in the Gulf province and what you say is very true, unfortunately. As a registered nurse I have a clinic, Kunai Health Centre, near Kotidanga. We provide all medical services to about 1000 per month. Frequently we work with the CHWs to provide a continuum of care, and we at times help supply the government aid posts as well. We are a church agency (Baptist). I am open to suggestions on how to “fix” this situation. So very sad for those who live in Gulf Province.

  • Hi I am very impressed with the work the team has accomplished. We hear of development but what is it really to the people where the resources are?
    Obviously, the leadership in the province are hiding in the city and not doing enough.

    I thank you and really hope this will do a great impact to the people of Gulf and PNG as whole.

    Please deliver this to the Governer and Members of Gulf.

  • Thank you Colin and the team. As Tess stated eloquently, this is a powerful description and a very important project. Thank you for engaging in this challenging work and highlighting some of these challenges. Very important to hear that government officials understand that services have not been provided to the people and also to understand at least part of the reasons why. I look forward to reading more about the PEPE results including how we can support people like that head teacher / CHW that you met!

  • Thanks Colin for a really powerful description of the realities of service delivery in rural PNG. Many of the issues you have identified apply also in rural Vanuatu and I am sure elsewhere in the Pacific region. In fact a number of them are applicable in urban areas also no doubt. This should be required reading for anyone designing an aid project or programme plus those who would like to characterise development ‘failures’ as purely results of government or public service ineptitude or worse. It is only by knowing what the realities are in the environment where services are required that service providers can start to make resource allocations and other decisions that can hope to meet the real development challenges. Collecting this information and then getting it in front of the people who need it in a format they can make use of is itself a challenge (as you’ve shown us here) but I feel it is a vital foundation for improved policy and implementation. Very much looking forward to hearing more from PEPE in the coming months.

    • Gulf province is no way near to other provinces because by comparing it, we have a mentality problem. others do have it but have common understanding of each other. so call big shots with the officers running the affairs of the province are not thinking for better Gulf tomorrow. services were not provided well for the last 40yrs….what a shame. colonial infrastructure are deteriorating and nothing is been replaced..

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