By Annmaree O'Keeffe, Danielle Cave and Jenny Hayward-Jones, from the Lowy Institute's Melanesia program. 

 

The idea to hold the New Voices conference in Port Moresby began as a crazy thought by the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program team and turned out to be a winner. We hope it will prove a game changer, too. 

New Voices has been an annual feature on the Institute's calendar since 2004, but this is the first time it has been held in another country. The aim was to give 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.

It seems they were hungry for that opportunity: instead of the 80 participants we had hoped for, more than 120 of PNG's future leaders came along on Monday. There was also a broad representation of local and international news media.

Speakers and participants were there to talk about where the national economy is going, the impact of the Asian Century on PNG's international choices and how the burgeoning popularity of social media is shaping policy choices. They didn't hold back in getting their views across; they wanted their 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 reflects the ambitions and frustrations of PNG society. Importantly, these new voices are offering a constructive way forward.

Allan Bird, the keynote speaker and agribusiness expert, summed it up: there is widespread frustration with the way the PNG 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 its people. 'We suffer from a tyranny of democracy,' he said, 'with 200% turnout at elections. But once they're in office, the politicians only give 20%.'

For many of the participants, a big concern is the failure to develop PNG's human resources well enough or fast enough to take the country beyond the current mining boom. At the same time, the one area where the vast majority of Papua New Guineans work – agriculture – is a blind spot in government policy. Questions were raised about why, with 86% of the country's population living in rural areas, agriculture isn't a government priority.

 

'It's 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,' said Jennifer Baing (pictured above right with Ruby Patu), a farmer and director of Savé PNG.

Despite frustrations with political inaction rusted on by corruption, the silver thread which ran through the day was a determination to bring about positive change. One of the sessions highlighted the ways in which personal initiative and drive could bring about change using the creative arts, the media (old and new) and youth groups. Another session focused on the way the growing social media phenomenon in PNG 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: PNG's geo-strategic focus is shifting from the Pacific to Asia.

According to a presentation from a senior bureaucrat, '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 is 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 wants to talk about consumption, economics and commerce, it will not be with Australia.

The final question of the day wasn't for the conference speakers or the organisers but for the PNG government: In the midst of the country's extraordinary period of economic growth, where are the opportunities for the ordinary Papua New Guinean to improve and prosper?

Photos Lowy Institute.