The Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program convened its second PNG New Voices conference in Port Moresby yesterday. We assembled a group of interesting and passionate young people with strong views about the future of their country. They spoke on a range of topics across three key themes: Papua New Guinea's relations with its neighbours, responsible sustainable development and new political engagement.

A PNG New Voices panel session on sustainable development (Andrew Gavin/Kate Uvia) 

Papua New Guinea's relations with its Melanesian neighbours are complex. PNG appears to be somewhat ambivalent about its membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Contributors suggested the government does not involve the people in its management of relations with Melanesian neighbours, leaving some to wonder what the benefits of trade agreements and intra-Melanesia labour mobility agreements are for Papua New Guinea.

The question of support for West Papua was a controversial one. Many Papua New Guineans have sympathies with the independence movement in West Papua but contributors argued the government puts its relationship with Indonesia ahead of popular interest in supporting fellow Melanesians and ahead of lining up with fellow Melanesian Spearhead Group members.

We collaborated with Tanim Graun, a PNG version of the ABC's Q&A program, which looked at the future of the informal economy. Participants quickly renamed the informal economy as the 'people's economy' given that the vast majority of Papua New Guineans are engaged in informal economic activity rather than employed in the formal sector.

Despite the continuing resources boom and forecast economic growth of 21% in 2015, participants acknowledged there would never be enough jobs in PNG's formal economy to support the population. The first shipment of LNG from PNG in the past week has made international headlines but after the construction phase, LNG projects will not deliver the number of jobs required to meet the high expectations of Papua New Guineans.

Increasingly, salaries in the formal sector are insufficient to support the rising cost of living in urban areas in Papua New Guinea, particularly in Port Moresby. Participation in the informal economy, including in activities like selling betel nut (which is now officially banned in Port Moresby) is needed to subsidise the formal economy for many families. Speakers remarked that the systems around transporting and selling betel nut worked better than those for most other goods in PNG. 

The private sector voice was articulate and impassioned at the conference. From more than one contributor we heard that the private sector is bearing the brunt of the apparent decline in educational standards in recent years. Significant investment is required in developing personnel, including those who have graduated from tertiary institutions, in order for them to be fully productive. Some businesses are compelled to buy-in talent or skills from overseas, which has the knock-on effect of putting up their prices. This has impacts in the wider business community.

Suggested solutions included short-term work placements in Australia that could be funded by the Australian aid program in the case of small and medium enterprises (SME); degrees undertaken in Australia could include a year-long work placement to expose PNG students to Australian standards and practices; and private sector peak bodies such as the PNG Chamber of Commerce to be consulted as part of the process of awarding scholarships to identify skills most needed in the labour market.

A strong sense of national identity is often hard to find in Papua New Guinea, where clan, cultural and linguistic identities typically are more important than association with the nation. One speaker, ardent about building national identity, reflected on the factors that made Papua New Guinea unique. PNG is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse nations on earth, with approximately 850 spoken languages. 'Wantoks' (people from the same area or speaking the same language) and large extended family and clan connections are central to society and also provide a social security system where no formal one existed. While these connections were special for PNG, building a national identity would not be possible without higher education standards which allow for better discussions about identity and development.

Reflections on the looming referendum on the future of Bougainville and some unresolved issues from the conflict prompted discussion about the need to prepare for Bougainville's independence, as well as the national identity questions for PNG that would follow what is now an unthinkable prospect for PNG authorities.

Much is expected of PNG's young people. Yesterday's discussion proved that the country's future leaders are already thinking about how to change the country.

Image courtesy of Andrew Gavin.