For the last three years, the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program has hosted the Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue under the auspices of the Australia-PNG Network, with the generous support of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and also of GE  I’ve been privileged to co-chair this Dialogue with Serena Sumanop, the founder of The Voice Inc, PNG, an organisation devoted to cultivating leadership skills in university students. The Dialogue and the subsequent connections we have made with emerging leaders in Papua New Guinea (including some great friendships) have been the highlight of my eight years at the Lowy Institute. The extraordinary talents and commitment of these young emerging leaders has been truly inspiring.

The challenges this group of young Papua New Guineans will face when they and others assume more senior decision-making roles in government, the private sector, and civil society organisations are immense. In a new analysis published by the Lowy Institute today, I examine seven trends that are shaping Papua New Guinea’s future: weak governance; poor law and order; a failing health system, a mediocre national education system; an over-reliance on the extractives industry; the unrealised potential of subsistence agriculture; and a growing population.

I agree with Sean Dorney when he says in his Lowy Institute Paper, The Embarrassed Colonialist, that there is a disproportionate focus in Australia on PNG’s weaknesses — such as high crime and corruption — rather than PNG’s strengths.  Papua New Guinea has a lot going for it. It has a vast resources endowment, abundant food sources, a young population, and it enjoys geographic proximity to important markets in East Asia and in Australia. Although the economy is in dire straits this year, Papua New Guinea has enjoyed 14 years of successive GDP growth and attracted a major successful investment in LNG from ExxonMobil. A growing middle class has produced a number of very talented emerging leaders.

But the negative trends in Papua New Guinea have serious implications for the future of the country. These trends are also mutually reinforcing. By 2050, PNG’s population could reach 30 million. A young and growing population can be a real boon for a developing country but it will place large demands on PNG’s national infrastructure and service delivery agencies. Without meaningful investments in commercialising agriculture, subsistence agriculture is likely to struggle to meet a larger population’s food needs. This, along with further tensions over resources could lead to increased numbers of conflicts over land, exacerbating PNG’s law and order challenge. One result could be a growing need to import food, which would have consequences for the incidence of non-communicable diseases. At the same time, improvements in technology could deliver significant advances in diagnoses and treatment.

More Papua New Guineans and, most importantly, more girls will go to school but this is unlikely to have the desired impact on improving educational outcomes or skills levels as the growing population overwhelms an under-resourced and under-skilled education system.  If education standards for the majority are not dramatically improved, it will be difficult for the nation to take full advantage of the foreign investments it attracts in its resources base. Its labor force will be ill-suited to participate in other areas of the economy that require skills, leading to a larger number of unemployed youth. This is likely to reinforce the trend towards declining law and order, which will not be addressed without significant institutional reform. Poor law and order raises barriers to the creation of small and medium sized enterprises and dissuades a significant expansion of investment beyond the extractive industries.

The next generation of leaders have a near impossible task ahead to strengthen the nation’s institutions. These are already under threat from the District Services Improvement Plan that will devolve national responsibilities for service delivery to individual members of parliament. They will also be under pressure to deliver tangible results in the form of improved living standards at the same time as the quality of key agencies responsible for service delivery and law and order is diminishing.

Delivering better living standards for all Papua New Guineans is a very long-term endeavour. Rather than trying to solve all PNG’s problems simultaneously, as has been the practice to date, the next generation of leaders should pick a few areas where bold and innovative policy interventions can make a real difference to communities and unlock barriers to progress. 

In the paper I suggest that early efforts from a new generation of leaders in Papua New Guinea could concentrate on:

  1. A new national investment in education, learning from successes in PNG’s own history.
  2. Improving access to electricity and telecommunications in select rural areas that will help to enhance the quality of healthcare and create opportunities in education and business development.
  3. A tailored approach to reduce crime by targeting hotspots in a holistic way,  combining government, private sector and civil society talents to address the drivers of crime in one high crime area, which could then act as a model for reducing crime nation-wide.
  4. Developing and commercialising subsistence agriculture through strategic investments in infrastructure in a number of rural centres that will improve market access and supply chains and offer viable employment options for a large number of young people in rural areas.

These are only suggestions. PNG’s emerging leaders are already starting to change their country by pursuing community development initiatives alongside their professional roles. They are acutely aware of the complexity of the challenges facing Papua New Guinea and are thinking strategically about how they can influence change in the future.

Australia, which has enduring interests in Papua New Guinea, can help not just with official aid but targeted private sector investments and civil society partnerships. Investing in young people can help emerging leaders implement their ideas now, rather than waiting 15 to 20 years for them to obtain senior leadership roles. The next generation of PNG’s leaders is certainly capable of implementing meaningful change that could put their country on a much more positive trajectory. They deserve support.

Photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank