PNG New Voices: where are the opportunities for the ordinary Papua New Guinean?

26/10/2012 11:55


Myer Foundation Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones. Picture

courtesy of the Lowy Institute for International Policy




By Jenny Hayward-Jones

Right move, right place, right time – that’s the popular view of the New Voices conference hosted in Port Moresby on Monday October 22, 2012 by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy. 

The idea to take it to Port Moresby started as a crazy thought by the institute’s Melanesia Program team. But instead of crazy, it turned out to be a winner and, hopefully, a game changer. This is the first time the institute has taken New Voices to another country since it started in Sydney in 2004.

The aim was to give the young and emerging leaders in PNG a forum to debate, discuss and exchange ideas on the future of their resource-rich but development challenged country. And it seems they were hungry for that opportunity. Instead of the 80 participants we had hoped for, more than 120 of the country’s future leaders along with a broad representation of  local and international news media turned up for the conference on Monday.

They were there to hear their own cohort talk about where the national economy was going, the impact of the Asian Century on PNG’s international choices and how the burgeoning popularity of social media was shaping the policy choices.  Speakers and participants didn’t hold back in getting their views across.  They wanted the government to hear what they had to say. 

And it would be worth the government’s while to listen because what they had to say reflected the ambitions and frustrations of today’s PNG society. Importantly, these new voices were offering a constructive way forward borne out of their own personal endeavours and initiative.

As Allan Bird, the keynote speaker and agribusiness expert, summed it up, there is widespread frustration with the way in which the government has been doing business. PNG may be the Pacific’s economic tiger but the country hasn’t converted the wealth into better lives for our people.

“We suffer from a tyranny of democracy, with 200% turnout at elections. But once they’re in office, the politicians only give 20%,” he said.

For many of the participants, a big concern was the way in which the country wasn’t developing its human resources well enough or fast enough to take it beyond the current mining boom. At the same time, the one area where the vast majority of Papua New Guineans worked – agriculture – was a blind spot in the government’s policy eye even though the vast majority of people live in rural areas.

“The government is interested in partnering with foreign investors but not with its own people. We’re on the sidelines. But we need to have access to a market where there is a production of wealth for us,” is the way Jennifer Baing, herself a farmer and director of Savé PNG, described it in her presentation.

A participant making a comment at the PNG New Voices conference. Picture

courtesy of the Lowy Institute for International Policy

Despite these and other frustrations with political inaction rusted by corruption, the silver thread which ran through the day was a determination to bring about positive change. One of the sessions highlighted the way in which personal initiative and drive could bring about that change using the creative arts, the media - old and new – and confidence building youth groups.  Another session focused on the way in which the growing social media phenomenon was encouraging greater transparency and accountability.

As for PNG’s place in the Asian Century, there was a strong message not just for the PNG government but also for the Pacific community. The point was clear – PNG’s geo-strategic focus was shifting away from the Pacific. Instead, Asia was seen as the critical area of geopolitical interest.

According to one of the presenters, “PNG’s development experience is more akin to Asia. We have been colonised too. And we gained independence at around the same time as Asian countries. We can learn a lot from that. That’s why PNG can and should look to the Asian countries’ experience. PNG is an island of gold swimming on an ocean of oil – we need to see how we can turn that into something for us.”

And where was Australia’s place in all this? For Douveri Henao, executive director of the Business council of PNG, the bilateral relationship was largely friendly and collegiate but if PNG wanted to talk about consumption, economics and commerce, it was not with Australia. 

By the end of the day, the final question wasn’t for the conference speakers or the organisers but for Prime Minister O’Neill. In the midst of the country’s extraordinary period of economic growth, where were the opportunities for the ordinary Papua New Guinean to improve and prosper? 

  • Jenny Hayward-Jones is the Director for the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. This opinion piece was originally published in the PNG Post-Courier in the Friday October 26, 2012 edition.