Monday, September 23, 2013

The Price of Independence

Now that our successful run of Twelfth Night is over, I have some breathing room to put together some of my observations on the recent Independence Day celebrations here in Papua New Guinea.  September 16, 1975 marked the day PNG became a separate nation, severing its governmental ties to Australia (but not to the British Commonwealth of which it is still a member).  As in many parts of the world, to mark the day there were lots of flags being sold on every street corner and market—not only the black red and gold national flag, but multi-colored flags from all 22 of the PNG provinces (or for those of you who are persnickety: 20 provinces, one autonomous district and the national capital district).  Not unlike  Fourth of July celebrations in the US, throughout the country there were ceremonies with long-winded speeches from various heads of state and government officials, displays of national dances and songs, a vast array of traditional foods served up (including some delicious sweet potatoes and fried red bananas,) a lot of drunk folks whooping it up over the course of the long weekend, and even a smattering of fireworks.  Yet, for all the similarities, I am struck by the vast differences between life in post-colonial PNG and that of more successful former colonies, and am left wondering if independence is always what it is cracked up to be.

The early colonial history of Papua New Guinea reads like most countries subjected to Western Imperialism, with a couple of important differences.  The first European inroads to the island were made by the Dutch East Indies Company as they were establishing their Indonesian presence in the late 1600’s.  But claiming something does not always mean doing anything with it and, unlike other conquests made by the Dutch, there was no obvious value to the land (its mineral and natural gas resources were not yet discovered) so it was left more or less alone until sometime in the late 1700’s when the British made a half-hearted play for it.  The Brits ultimately agreed to share the island with the Dutch but also did little with their claim until the Germans showed up and made a play for the northern part of the island.  Wanting to buffer Australia from potential German influence, the Brits agreed to divide the island yet again, leaving the east to the Dutch, the Germans in the north and keeping the south-west for themselves.  In the early 1900’s, administration of the British interest was inherited by the Australians, whose own history of independence from Britain is even more complicated than that of PNG!   
Port Moresby circa 1900
There were several aspects of PNG that made colonization slow in coming, at least until after WWII.  The country that the European explorers found held wild, difficult terrain populated by isolated tribes of subsistence farmers who spoke over 800 different languages, fought viciously among themselves, and sometimes engaged in head-hunting, cannibalism and slave trade.  This was not a country with a complex civilization that had developed written language or sophisticated gold and silver ornamentation like the Aztecs or Incas.  It did not have a readily accessible or easily captured population which could be pressed into slave labor like the Mandé or BaKango tribes.  Nor did it have the exotic spices like the Mughal Empire.  What it did have was a strategic location, which was critical during WWII, and a wealth of mineral and natural gas resources which were not fully exploited until the post-war era.
Early mining operations in PNG
I won’t recount the role of PNG in WWII, as I have given much of that history in previous blog entries.   However, given its integral role in the war in the South Pacific, and, the greater need in its aftermath for mineral and energy resources which were discovered in abundance on the island, the expat population (mostly Australians) boomed, increasing from about 6,000 to 50,000 by the early 1970’s.  But maybe because the lure of PNG is in the extractive industries, which is inherently a take-and-use sort of business, many of the expats who came really didn’t intend to settle permanently and create new lives in PNG.  They came, they saw, they conquered, then, for the most part, went home.  Even today, you find that there are many expats who live and work here alone while their families continue to live in the comfort and safety of Australia or other more developed nations.  Even those who do come with spouses and children seem reluctant to move their household effects here, as PNG is viewed as a temporary gig.  There seems to have been limited long-term investment in improving conditions in country, except for what was necessary and convenient for business, and limited support for integrating the local population into aspects of business, society and culture that would allow them to operate the economic and governance machine independently.

When independence came to PNG in 1975, it wasn’t generated by any burning patriotic flame on the part of the Papua New Guineans.  There was no rioting demanding the severing of ties to Australia, no civil unrest, no protests.  Unlike many countries that were kicking and screaming (or at least throwing a good hunger strike or two) for freedom from their Western captors, PNG was seemingly happy and content to carry on and stay calm.  The country really wasn’t prepared to set up its own government; in fact, one thing they had to do first was to identify potential political leaders and send them to school to learn about parliamentary and political procedures.  Yet, by the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, prompted by the wave of independence movements in Africa, the idea of continued colonial presence anywhere in the world became distinctly un-PC, and, with a little nudging by the United Nations, Australia began to prepare for a governmental and economic hand-off to PNG.  But, once the keys to the kingdom were passed on to the locals, many of the expats washed their hands of PNG and over the next few years, approximately 30,000 of them went home. 

PNG Parliament in session
So where does that leave PNG?  Well, the government has a unicameral parliament with executive power in the hands of a Prime Minister, but the members of parliament come from such divergent areas of the country , speaking any one of the over 800 languages that the running of the government is chaotic at best. For example, in 2011, two different candidates both claimed to have won the race for Prime Minister.  While the country was initially categorized by the UN as a developing country, its status was downgraded in 2006 to Least Developed Country (LDC) as a result of rampant corruption, abuses by police and security forces and continuing violence against women.  In fact, conditions are considered so bad in PNG that the new Australian PM has come up with an unusual immigration policy.  In order to dissuade Iranian and Afghan refugees from seeking asylum in Australia he is sending them to PNG instead. The idea is that the middle-men in Indonesia and Sri Lanka cannot promise the refugees a better life and they may have to reconsider their options. 
Above the door of Parliament building in Port Moresby
Even in a country that should be thriving as a result of income generated by mining and liquefied natural gas (LNG), over a third of the population is living on less than $1.25 per day, and this is no cheap place to live.  It does not appear that the problem is a lack of good jobs, so much as there has been little training of the local population on how to get and/or hold on to those jobs.  One of the biggest issues for businesses here is that the work force is has not had a strong educational system to support them, nor has there been ingrained the type of work ethic that supports the economic powerhouses of the world.  With high illiteracy, often weak command of the English language, and lack of familiarity with western business practices and norms, it is hard to see how gaining independence has moved the country forward.
Low tide in Port Moresby
Don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating a return to Australian or any other country as overlords here.  This is a proud country with a strong and vibrant culture as well as a population that is fully capable of running its own affairs.  What it does need, however, is more help in strengthening its institutions, starting with education both for its children, and for adults who are looking to improve their job skills.  And, to be fair one of the important players in this arena will continue to be the Australians and, perhaps the US if we ever really make the Pacific Islands a focus in our “pivot to Asia” strategy.  But it isn’t about doing it for them…it is teaching them how to do it themselves.   
In a way, I am reminded of my own baby steps towards independence here in PNG.   We recently purchased a car here, but I have been reluctant to drive it for a number of reasons.  PNG is a left-hand drive country (steering wheel is on the right side of the car), which still has me walking to the wrong side of any vehicle I attempt to enter and not entirely secure in which lane I should turn into.  The car we purchased is also a manual drive, which means I have to use my left hand to shift gears.  Add to that the repeated frightening reports of violent carjacking across the city, with solo women drivers a popular target.  Besides,  I have a number of people who have been seemingly happy to shuttle me around, so why drive when someone else will do it for me?  It is certainly safer and easier for me, but then, I cannot make my own decisions on what to do or how to get to where I want to go.  At least PNG, as an independent nation, can make its own decisions on where it wants to go…but like me, may still need some lessons and support in getting there safely and effectively. 




  1. Miss Smith! What an honor to read your blog entry and to get some "news" of your whereabouts and adventures through here! I can't believe I've been missing out on your recent updates!

    Now in regards to the post itself, it certainly triggers a few questions in my head.

    First of: 1975, as the year of independence, is so recent in comparison to other countries that it's almost safe to say that they are still taking their first steps to becoming this, albeit independent nation, prosperous or atleast developed nation (I'm almost cringing to the fact that I can't find a more suitable word than 'developed'. The western conotation that is so often associated with 'development' is sometimes incompatible with certain culture's own view of the world (see Bolivia, with a highly indigenous population, where Mcdonalds was forced out of business), and I can imagine this to be the case for Papua New Guinea as well. At least to some degree. Don't be afraid to correct me if I'm wrong).

    Again, back to 1975. I think we would be hard pressed to find a country, with an independence date so recent, to be any where decent in regards to the UN's (UNPD to be exact) Human Development Index.

    What I take from your post is of course the need for the education of the population in regards to their country's most lucrative industry and the necessary training (language, business orientated mentality, etc.) to land jobs within the industry but also rise within the ranks.

    I would be inclined to think that as an owner of these mining companies, at least somewhere in the back of their heads, is the idea that if enough members of the population really do get involved in the industry, with atleast a figure or two rising high enough in the ranks, a large enough political base would appear, in which a nationalization of the industry could be seen as the "correct" way to moving as you say the country forward. (In spite of evidence in other countries saying otherwise and perhaps even shooting its own economy in the foot in the international commerce arena).

    I'm trying to put the country's recent independence in perspective by thinking about Costa Rica (on the verge of celebrating its 200th anniversary - in about 8 years). And while the routes to independence are most likely incomparable, the problems in Papua New Guinea are also found to some extent here in Costa Rica. It's hard to compare a 20% threshold of the population under the poverty line with 1/3 of the population living with $1.25 per day; but in both cases it will undoubtably be a combination of technical skills, education, and the english language, which will help move both countries forward. National policies aimed towards creating more productive jobs and investment in education and skills that promote employability (skills and experience that lead to portability of a job) are most definately necessary to diminish poverty and promote the population's well being.

    Sorry for the lengthy response but I must say that I did enjoy your post! I also took the liberty to read some of the previous ones and enjoyed them as well!

    Ps: Like anything else, I think driving on the "wrong" side will become second nature in no time. When I lived in The Bahamas - granted I didn't drive so I can't really say I know what the transition is like first hand - the driving was also done on the left and I do believe my parents caught on fairly quickly. Although the manual transmission is a bit of a pain for those of used to shifting gears with our right.

    Talk soon miss Smith; Pura Vida!

  2. Seychelles is actually an example of a small island state, which achieved independence in 1976, and is currently ranked no. 46 in the UNDP development index. It ranks above the world average of human development and lies just below "very high human development".

    Cape Verde-- also a small island(s) state-- gained independence in 1975 and is also doing similarly well (though just below medium human development), especially in comparison to its sub-Saharan neighbors.

    That being said, I think Esteban has a fair point; countries that are doing well with such 'recent' independence dates are few and far between (especially when you consider countries like Angola, Mozambique, Eritrea, South Sudan etc). However, the ones that are doing decently seem to be the island states... what a big contrast PNG.

  3. I can't tell you how gratifying it is as a teacher to see such intelligent and thoughtful discourse being presented by two former AP Comp Gov students! And not even for a grade!! Points well taken Esteban, and yes, PNG is relatively new to the independent nation game, but because of its unique history, I think it is going to be a while before it can upgrade back to "developing"...or whatever term is more PC these days. But I am certainly routing for it to succeed as this is truly a beautiful country with amazingly wonderful people...a lot like Costa Rica, I'd say

  4. Mrs Smith! To me this is very interesting in the lens of my Senior Thesis, where I am concentrating on the Institutional development of Costa Rica as the main reason behind its relative "High development" in the region. As I read, the points you make about education, a strong workforce, etc, just lit up the points I am trying to make about Costa Rican development, and our challenges for the future (Don't know if you have kept up with CR, but recent publiclations have shown the dismal record we actually have in education, which, if not fixed ASAP, will have huge impacts on our economy). In any case, i think a strong idea of where the country is going (or rather, where the people need/want it to go) is needed to implement sound institutions that will work for the benefit of all. How do you think this can be achieved in a country so diverse as PNG?

    1. I want a crack at that thesis Mr Garnier.

  5. Fabrice, this country has a long way to go to catch up to Costa Rica. Here, education is neither compulsory nor free. Kids are lucky to make it through grade 6. Just today I looked out my window at 11am on a Wednesday and counted at least 10 children roughly between the ages of 8 and 12 running along the road or hanging out by the seaside with no apparent destination, but certainly not in or on their way to school. And that is true everyday. So sadly, even if the government or people with some vision have a goal in mind for PNG, it will be very difficult to implement if a good portion of the population remains illiterate. And even those who are "educated" often can not meet the same standards as those for whom they are working. As an example, my husband has struggled to find someone who can pass a simple accounting test even though they claim to have degrees in accounting. Simple business accounting I believe is fairly standardized across countries, so it may be a weak education foundation that is lacking. So, to answer your question, I don't know yet how PNG will fair, but starting with free, compulsory education would be a really good place to start!

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