Papua New Guinean perspectives on a good life

Papua New Guinea

James Cox has interviewed a cross-section of Papua New Guineans and others closely associated with the country. The respondents reflect on the challenges their country faces and discuss how they could be – and are being – resolved. More abstractly, they were asked to consider what, for Papua New Guineans, constitutes 'a good life' (gutpela tingting na sindaun).

Introduction (from page 5 of the report)

Papua New Guinea is a rich and diverse nation. Its human and natural resources offer tremendous potential for future growth. Its people, resident for tens of thousands of years, have developed hundreds of distinct cultures and languages, and as many diverse ways of living on the land, rivers and seas. Over the last century, they have steadily built their capacity to engage with the international community and economy. Most recently, in thirty years of independent nationhood, Papua New Guinea has enjoyed continuous popularly-elected democratic government, a rare distinction among the world’s former colonies. Papua New Guinean people today are planning and working to improve life for their families, their communities and their country.

The argument summarised above offers a positive perspective on Papua New Guinea today, of a country with significant assets working hard to improve itself. This perspective differs from that presented in much contemporary writing produced in Australia, which conversely portrays a nation poised on the brink of disaster. This writing focuses on what is not working in Papua New Guinea, citing the declining capacity of national, provincial and district governments; endemic corruption; violence against women and children; the growing HIV epidemic; the lack of job opportunities for youth; decaying infrastructure, and so on. They often recommend action by the international community, led by Australia, to resolve these problems.

There is no question that the above are immense challenges for the nation and its people. Any engagement with Papua New Guinea must address them, and many current programs are doing so. Yet by promoting externally-driven, top-down solutions, these problem-oriented analyses fail to recognise what increasing numbers of Papua New Guineans understand: that the solutions to their problems must ultimately be owned by those who are affected by them – the citizens of Papua New Guinea. Ignoring this central fact limits the effectiveness of any interventions and undermines the sovereignty of the nation and its people.

Australia’s current relations with Papua New Guinea appear to be founded on this perspective. In the main, Australian institutions including government, the media and sections of academia focus on Papua New Guinea’s problems and recognise neither its richness nor the ideas and actions of its people. ‘PNG’ becomes a problem to be fixed, not an independent neighbour that is asking us for a helping hand.

World Vision Australia suggests that Australians need to listen more attentively to our neighbours in Papua New Guinea. We include ourselves in this, and so this Discussion Paper marks a new step for World Vision Australia. Based on interviews with Papua New Guineans from all walks of life conducted in September 2005 and supported by other published material, this paper explores the question of just what it is that Papua New Guineans want from life, for themselves and for their country. It examines what they have, and what they want to be.

The paper discusses many of the problems highlighted in the media and in policy debate, but its outlook is unashamedly positive. This has been a natural effect of asking people about their ideas and aspirations, rather than their problems and fears. It is also a deliberate attempt to present an alternative perspective on contemporary Papua New Guinea, and to do this using the often unheard voices of the nation’s citizens.

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