The state of development in Papua New Guinea

A thoughtful interview on overcoming development challenges by progressing the gender-parity in PNG.

As a former economist at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Rosa Maria Alonso i Terme has participated in the elaboration, monitoring, and evaluation of development programs and projects, and has researched and written on development issues and trends for over 20 years. She has shared her wealth of knowledge as a visiting professor to reputable universities around the globe. Rosa’s fearless passion for human development is apparent in her professional work and in her personal pursuits, and is guided by her strong faith in the Catholic Church.

In November 2015, Rosa ventured to Papua New Guinea (PNG) – a country with a reputation for domestic gender-based violence, witchcraft accusation-related violence, crime and inter-tribal and inter-clan conflict – as a lay missionary. Sorcery-related violence has long been an issue on the island. Women suspected of such crimes are commonly tortured and killed when they are unable to provide evidence proving their innocence.  The government has done little to intervene. Until its repeal in 2013, the “Sorcery Law” defended the use of violence in cases to where it was necessary to “stop witchcraft.” The repeal has in essence expanded the death penalty by making murders related to witchcraft-accusations punishable by death.  Despite this, there have been no convictions and no perceived improvement in the frequency and brutality of violence.

Rosa’s two-month experience allowed her to get a first-hand glimpse into the state of development in PNG. The journey was as spiritual as it was educational. Rosa was hosted by a Catechist Training Center in Mendi (Southern Highlands Province) and interacted with seminarians, priests, sisters, teachers and health workers, many of whom have lived in the PNG Highlands for over forty years. Rosa’s observations help us gain a better understanding of the progress made in PNG and what limits further development.

Papua New Guinea

Source: Wikimedia Commons

What surprised you most upon your arrival in PNG?

[S]everal of the people I asked told me that they liked that their country was so “peaceful.” Upon hearing that, I tried not to look too puzzled and politely smiled and nodded. It seems to me that PNG is known in the rest of the world as a particularly violent and conflict-ridden country…When I was working at the World Bank, it was considered to be a particularly difficult posting. Being in the Southern Highlands, however, I [could] see why someone would make that comment. It [was] quite peaceful [t]here. The mountains [were] lovely and there [was] hardly any traffic as well as no factory or other machine-related noise.

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2016 has named PNG “one of the most dangerous places to be a woman or girl, with rates of family and sexual violence among the highest in the world.” During your time in PNG, what was your impression of the prevalence of gender-based or witchcraft accusation-related violence? Did you encounter any instances of violence?

During my stay in the country, I visited the Mendi hospital with the Missionaries of Charity several times. There, I met women who had been victims of domestic violence. Two women had chopped their own fingers off to “prove” they were distressed at their child’s death and were not the cause of it (a traditional accusation and ritual practice). We also visited a women’s prison a half hour from Mendi where some of the inmates were doing time for having killed their husbands after enduring years of violence themselves. Finally, the saddest man I met while in Mendi was an old gentleman from the hills outside town who had been wounded in the head by some men who had tried to kill his wife some days before on witchcraft accusation-related violence.

[Several incidents of witchcraft accusation-related violence were recounted to me, but none took place during my visit.] [I learned that] one of the most urgent needs in protecting the women accused of practicing sorcery is establishing a safe house for them. At different points, [the sisters] took into their house several women who were afraid of being tortured and killed because of witchcraft accusations. It is a sad commentary on the failure of community and formal institutions to play their role that a tiny group of elderly, but impressively brave, sisters should have had to take it upon themselves to provide shelter to these persecuted women.

This solution, unfortunately, proved unworkable. Because so many people do believe sorcery is real and can cause terrible harm to them and their wantoks (clan members), they began throwing stones at the sisters’ house and threatening them. The sisters had to find an alternative solution and took the woman to the police station. Moreover, they have now convinced the local police station to provide the needed safe house to any persecuted women. It is hoped that this solution will prove workable.

What do you think are the most significant obstacles to development that PNG faces?

Rape and other forms of violence bring together two of PNG’s greatest challenges: misogyny and violence in a context of weak formal institutions. As the [2010] Millennium Development Goals [Progress] Report points out, until these cultural challenges are addressed, progress towards achieving many goals (like improving maternal health, reducing HIV infections and achieving gender parity), and development more generally, will remain limited.

PNG faces three structural obstacles to development. The first is the legacy of the country’s isolation, a result of its geography and history. This external isolation and internal ruggedness has left it with only a very recent history of literacy and modern medicine, infrastructure, institutions and business culture. Moreover, the country’s very recent and still ongoing Christianization means that the ideas of individual freedom, equality and universality, which are the keystones of a market economy and democratic governance, are only beginning to be absorbed in its culture.

The second obstacle is PNG’s reliance on natural resources, which account for 72 percent of its exports. This reliance will make it hard, though not impossible, to develop a broad-based, equitable and sustainable economy and a well-governed political system.

The third obstacle is due to the fact that Papua New Guineans need to learn three different languages to progress through the educational system: their mother tongue, Tok Pisin (the country’s lingua franca), and English. This linguistic transition in PNG, as in countries with similar conditions like Tanzania [and India], is not at all easy and poses important problems for the effectiveness of the educational system, especially for the children of less well-educated, less well-off parents.

In the 2002 World Health Organization World report on violence and health, Nelson Mandela said, “Many who live with violence day in and day out assume that it is an intrinsic part of the human condition. But this is not so. Violence can be prevented. Violent cultures can be turned around. In my own country and around the world, we have shining examples of how violence has been countered. Governments, communities and individuals can make a difference.” In your opinion, what can be done to strengthen formal institutions in PNG which would ultimately counter the violent culture?

I believe fostering education and cultural change through inclusive/equitable education is the single best intervention to reduce violence, strengthen institutions and promote inclusive growth. [At all levels] institutions should be involved in this change in values that would progressively change behaviors. Progress toward gender parity in education and government, the private sector, [the] church and community is essential…and would help drive change in culture, policies, the overall legitimacy and quality of institutions, and reduction of violence.

Ashley Miller

Ashley is a researcher and global education advocate with a B.A. in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and M.A. in International Relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacional. Her studies and travels inform and inspire her interests in international education, social justice, economic empowerment, and human rights. To connect with Ashley, send her a personalized message on LinkedIn:
One Comment
  • Avatar
    Roger Hawcroft
    26 May 2016 at 12:11 pm
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    Papua New Guinea is a society that was almost literally dragged from the stone age into an ordered, controlled, dictated and foreign structure completely alien to the numbers comprising their population groups, their traditions, and their social structures. Using “Aid” from Australia and elsewhere – most of which has been siphoned off by corrupt government and civil service officials, a small and carefully chosen proportion of these people have had the opportunity of overseas scholarships that have presented them with the opportunity to gain tertiary education and, to some extent, influence those in positions of authority. Sadly corruption has been and remains rife. Social heritage, though undermined by the involvement of missionaries, still remains strong and the wealthy generally have little regard for the remainder of the population, live in secure compounds behind walls or fences , in modern high rise and luxury accommodation and drive the latest SUV’s and such. Around their compounds sprawl the shanty towns and slums that house the nationals who have been forced into the towns because of the destruction of their homes and way of life in the name of progress. That progress is actually the rape of the country by Malyasians, Australians and others who reap large profits from Papua New Guineas natural resources and leave little but uprooted & confused communities and a few token schools, hospitals & roads – most of which fall into disrepair and disuse because the nationals have no way to maintain them, too few people capable of taking on the task and almost no resources to fund it. Australia is culpable in having created most of PNG’s problems by leaving in the way it did and paying little attention afterwards to its neighbour other than when it has come to exploiting its people and resources. Most recently this has involved the transfer of refugees for whom Australia is responsible being housed in detention centres on Manus Island – a deal that has now fallen through and was never rational or desirable in the first place.

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