Time for a new approach to improving governance in PNG? Try transparency and social mobilisation

In his insightful blog post of January 24 this year, which provoked a lively on-line discussion, Graham Teskey, AusAID’s principal governance adviser, asked the question: What can donors do to improve governance in PNG? His basic argument was that it had to be something different. What had been tried to date hadn’t worked. Graham had several suggestions for what a new approach might look like, including working with non-state partners, building local capacity, and providing conditional grants into MP constituency funds.

Ultimately, governance in PNG is a matter for PNG itself. But donors can play a useful role at the margin. I agree with Graham that it is time to try something new. I also agree with him that working with non-state partners is important. I have long advocated that the aid program should work more with the churches who provide about half of PNG’s health and education services. I’m not so convinced that giving additional funding to MPs is such a good idea. They will struggle to spend all the funds they already have.

I want to put two ideas for new directions on the table. They are not new from a global perspective, but a lot more use could be made of them in PNG.

The first is transparency. I was struck by the speech given by Finance Minister James Marape in the Devpolicy-NRI budget forum in February of this year. The Minister spoke about all the new funding going to MPs and the steps the government was taking to ensure probity in spending. The focus of the Minister was on centralized procedures: plans had to be submitted, funds had to be acquitted, audits would be undertaken, and so on. Missing from his list of measures was the use of transparency as a tool to promote effective spending. What about requiring that all MPs publish their annual plans, perhaps on a central government website, and on notice boards in their constituency? What about requiring that every MP also have to publish an annual report of their spending? It couldn’t harm, and it might help.

It is not only in relation to MP funds that a bit more transparency might come in handy. PNG actually has a rich data base on its key services. The Government retains data on how many kids each health centre immunizes, what the condition is of nearly all of its roads, and what the test scores are of its school children. Most though not all of this data is collected centrally. None of it is made public, at least not regularly, and not in a timely disaggregated manner.

While decisions about data release are for governments, they are certainly ones AusAID could influence. AusAID is a key funder of both the road quality and the health centre performance data bases. Recently, AusAID started co-funding with the PNG Government the payments it now makes to schools in lieu for the revenue schools lost from the abolition of school fees under the Government’s free education policy. AusAID could have made its funds conditional on each school being required to put on a noticeboard when it received their funds, and what it planned to do with them, and then what it did do with them. Unfortunately, no such policy has been put in place.

The other strategy worth considering is social mobilization. Many are now familiar with the Uganda experiment, under which, in 25 communities, NGOs organized meetings of residents and health care providers about the quality of care in public clinics. Monitoring of health services was undertaken both in these villages and in others where nothing happened. In the former group, immunization rates went up and child mortality rates went down.

Social mobilization is not guaranteed to succeed. Another similar experiment in relation to schools in India failed. But it would be worth trying in PNG. AusAID actually promoted such an approach in its PNG Basic Education Project (BEDP) which ran from 2004 to 2010. Unfortunately, an end-of-project review of BEDP has never been published. Some who remember the project speak well of it. Perhaps it is worth trying to resurrect, at least on a pilot basis, the underlying idea of mobilizing communities to take greater responsibility for service provision, part of which will mean becoming more demanding of service providers.

These are not terribly innovative nor radical ideas. They might or might not make a difference. But what Graham Teskey says is right: we should be on the lookout for new ideas to improve governance and service delivery in PNG. Transparency and social mobilization are two strategies worth trying. Both the PNG Government and AusAID could do more in these areas.

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.


  • I think Chris has made a very salient point about the ongoing relevance of ‘top-down’ pressure to broad-based service delivery (thanks Chris for the excellent link). In 2013 it’s no longer a secret that the Waigani-centric approach of the last generation has failed more than it has succeeded. And doing more of the same would seem most likely to amplify the current status quo of service delivery, rather than altering the current trajectory. There’s a widespread consensus, from ordinary citizens to MPs to Ministers and donors, that we need to change course if we want service delivery to get better. The current political executive at the national level in PNG appears to be pinning most of its service delivery aspirations to by-passing Waigani and its public servants.

    But what are the feasible alternatives? ‘Bottom-up’ models of service delivery in PNG, without ‘top-down’ pressure, seem acutely susceptible to capture by the ‘local grain’. This would work well when the local grain of politics exhibits small-scale characteristics of the developmental state – but is this the norm, or the exception? Where the local grain is profoundly anti-development then we shouldn’t expect any gains. And making judgements about resource allocation based on assessments of the local grain may be bureaucratically problematic, and essentially an intensely political act.
    Back & Hadenius considered this issue in a paper written in 2008 “Democracy and State Capacity: Exploring a J-Shaped Relationship”. They find that high levels of state capacity (a proxy for service delivery) come from a combination of top-down (centralised legitimate authority) and bottom-up (citizen auditors) pressure, e.g. Denmark. But good levels of service delivery can be found in authoritarian states that have a lot of the top-down pressure and very little of the bottom-up kind, e.g. Saudi Arabia, Cuba. States that have neither have low state capacity, e.g. PNG, Haiti.

    A clear vision is starting to emerge of what PNG would look like if it were able to deliver broad-based services to its citizenry. A centralised state apparatus with high levels of accountability, combined with a nation of citizen auditors, with both constantly reinforcing inclusive institutions, fuelling a virtuous circle of human development.

    The hard part is ‘how do we get there?’ I would hope and expect that in coming years much greater resources will be deployed in pursuit of this challenge, rather than continuing with the forlorn hope that service delivery will grow out of granting Waigani and its ‘rentiers’ an unaccountable monopoly over public resources.

  • Thanks for the post Stephen. The evaluation of the Capacity Building Service Centre in PNG may also assist in thinking through the value of community mobilisation as a strategy. In particular, the evaluation identified the importance of ‘a sense of responsibility for service outcomes’ as a key mediating variable between capacity (or skills and motivation) and discretionary behaviour, persistence, innovation and ultimately, performance by service providers in constrained settings. These findings were published in a Health Systems Strengthening focus issue of the PNG Medical Journal in 2009. Also of relevance, is the work of Alice Street who looks at governance in PNG from an anthropological perspective. The article: Seen by the state: Bureaucracy, visibility and governmentality in a Papua New Guinean hospital suggests that as a result of the ‘absent state’ and the particular PNG social construction, instruments of governance do not operate as we would anticipate – connecting providers as a ‘second tier’ expression of government, but rather as a means to make the providers visible to those that govern. I think this is a very apt insight – and would bolster an argument for the potentially efficacy of community mobilisation as a means of reorienting this focus, improving governance and resiliently improving health.

  • I agree with you, Stephen, that a new approach is worth trying. Perhaps, however, the evidence for doing so might be stronger than you suggest. Do the 2 studies you cite (as others have done) – from Uganda and India – really cast any major doubt on what you are proposing? Were the respective interventions similar enough to warrant comparison? Is the Indian context really comparable to that in Uganda, and are comparisons across sectors valid? At least some of these seem open to question. For example, Pritchett has drawn attention to the fuzzy lines of accountability of VECs in India, which typically oversee more than one school. Yet in the intervention in India, according to the authors of the study ‘no attempt was made to introduce new institutions’ – even though VECs seem to have some significant flaws as institutions able to provide accountability. Further, in the Indian intervention, as far as I can see, no attempt was made to value local knowledge about why schools were failing. Apart from the different contexts, the Indian intervention in fact had a series of quite major differences with that in Uganda, not least in terms of how accountability and transparency worked, and the types of agencies involved. One of these is particularly important, in my view. In the Uganda intervention, it seems that local knowledge about health service failure was valued in a variety of ways, and used to effect health reforms. A recent study has showed that development outcomes from this intervention have been sustained some years later.

    As you say, mobilisation is not guaranteed to succeed. However, the comparison between these 2 studies seems wide open to question. What do you think?

  • Stephen I think you are absolutely right to note the potential of transparency and social mobilisation to address some of these issues in PNG. However I think it is also worth noting the conclusions of the Africa Power and Politics research (see especially pages 68-71) which suggests that social accountability of this type rarely works unless there is also ‘top-down’ pressure for change, and that such initiatives ‘go with the grain’ of local politics. This also suggests that donors and NGOs need to be very careful how they are involved if they are not to inadvertently undermine the very changes they wish to encourage by depoliticising the process, or by turning them into ‘projects’.

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