The political economy of Papua New Guinea is characterised by formal and customary governance actors, structures and institutions, weak governance and corruption. Traditional institutions and structures including ‘big man’ politics, the wantok system and customary land tenure have been overlaid with formal governance structures including national, provincial and local governments with administration located at these three levels as well as the district level. There is strong political interference in the workings of the administration and alleged widespread corruption. Formal actors, including the national parliament and political parties, are weak.
Decentralisation is a key feature of PNG’s political system, including responsibility for service provision being devolved to the provincial and local levels. There are concerns that decentralisation has increased political interference in service delivery. Formal government funding for service delivery includes discretionary funds for members of parliament (MPs) to spend in their electorates as part of broader Service Improvement Program (SIPs) grants for the Provincial, District and Local levels, where MPs also play a key role in determining how funding is spent.
Service delivery is declining across PNG, including falls in the percentage of the population with access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). This report provides an overview of some key aspects of PNG’s political economy, with specific reference to service delivery. Assessments of formal and informal institutions and structures as well as specific sectors, including WASH, roads and forests highlight a number of common themes including:
- The importance of customary structures: clans, ‘big men’ politics (where leaders are chosen for their ability to distribute resources), the wantok system (whereby ‘big men’ distribute resources to their kinship group) and customary land tenure (where land ownership rights are inalienable) regulate the lives of Papua New Guineans, especially given the country’s scattered and low population density. Reilly et al. (2015) argue that local behaviour and customary governance are the fundamental determinants of service delivery.
- Service delivery is conditioned by patron-client relations and clientelism across the different levels of administration. For example, road maintenance and construction are subject to political interference with projects being selected for funding based on MPs’ proposals. Clientelism has led to a number of incomplete projects across sectors.
- Corruption: this includes attempts to avoid regulations in the forestry sector, unofficial favours for elites, and bribes.
Findings specific to the WASH sector include a general consensus that the sector faces three main challenges: limited institutional framework and sector responsibilities, limited budgetary allocations and limited human resources. This has resulted in NGOs and donors being the main service providers. Bottlenecks identified in the evidence include: poor planning and decision-making mechanisms, unclear sector responsibilities (particularly in the rural sector); available government funds such as the SIPs are not used for WASH (despite WASH being a provincial and local responsibility), a lack of operations and maintenance for existing water supply schemes and poor sector monitoring and a lack of available data.
Customary institutions and structures condition the WASH sector in a number of ways including the strong clan-based culture limiting civil society participation: for example, village WASH committees have disbanded after projects have finished. Gender equity and social inclusion (GESI) are strong areas of concerns in PNG, which ranks 157 out of 189 of the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index. Whilst women and girls are responsible for WASH at household level, they have limited decision-making power and there are some concerns around safety (for example 11.4% of women and girls responding to a 2009-10 survey reported that safety concerns affected their willingness to walk for water) (ADB, 2017).
PNG has varying degrees of autonomy for its provinces, for example, Bougainville is an autonomous region scheduled to hold an independence referendum in October 2019, whilst New Ireland is seeking greater autonomy. This report includes some evidence specific to these two provinces, although they exhibit similar trends to those identified in the broader literature on PNG. This includes the importance of customary structures and institutions. The Bougainville crisis (1989-2001) has had a number of impacts on the province’s political economy including limited economic activity and revenue reliance on PNG. Whilst women in Bougainville have greater political representation than in PNG, gender inequality is still high. Information on New Ireland province was hard to locate during the course of this review.
The evidence base for this request was fairly small and drew on a number of key institutes including the PNG National Research Institute, the Lowy Institute, the State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program at ANU College of Asia and Pacific, and the Development Policy Center at Crawford, ANU as well input from experts on PNG. Only a small number of sources address the political economy of PNG and the evidence base for the WASH sector is largely drawn from the development banks and NGOs. As evidence related to the WASH sector was limited, this report draws on a slightly broader range of literature addressing service delivery in PNG.