Chronic Poverty in Papua New Guinea

76 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2011

See all articles by Diana Cammack

Diana Cammack

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Date Written: 2007


In terms of internationally accepted measures, the people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are poor. Worse yet, many are getting poorer. The reasons for this are complex, rooted in the geography of the country, its political economy and its social and political processes. To reduce its poverty is complicated and by most accounts, beyond the government’s ability or will to achieve, even with donor support.

PNG is an exemplar of the thesis that environment is destiny, for its extreme landscape has left its mark on the nation in numerous ways. It consists of more than 600 islands, it ranges from sea level to 4500 meters and is subject to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The nation hosts nearly 6 million people divided into more than 850 language groups (clans or wontoks), with strong cultural identities and traditions. The sense of nation is weak and politics at all levels are chaotic.

Many people live in areas that are difficult to access, isolated in the mountains, and amongst the dense forests and swamps. There are no railroads, and few roads – none links the capital city to any provincial capital – and people coming into towns walk, or arrive by water or air. Many rural people are outside the cash economy, mainly dependent on subsistence agriculture, which is handicapped by poor soils, steep slopes, and heavy rainfall. Marketing of produce is hindered by poor infrastructure. Many people migrate to towns where they hope to find jobs and public services, which are scarce in the hinterland. They are not really welcome, though, especially if they turn to begging or crime to live. Towns (Port Moresby, Lae, Mt Hagen and recently Madang) are subject to violent crime, though clan-based and politically inspired conflict is found in some rural districts as well. HIV/AIDS is making inroads, especially in the cities.

The national economy benefits from mineral, hardwood, and oil/gas extraction, but relatively few of the profits are used to improve public facilities or infrastructure. The nation’s administrative and political structures are highly decentralised, based on the ‘Organic Law for Provincial and Local-level Government’. This structure of government has proven to be dysfunctional as there is a disconnect between central and local levels, such that sector policies designed in the capital are not implemented effectively in the districts. This is because funding is insufficient and because a large percentage of sector funds is spent on staffing rather than operations. Complicating the issue is politicised service delivery and the fact that senior staff may work for one level of administration (e.g., central government) while junior staff work for another (district or province), which results in poor discipline. Moreover, the delivery of services is complicated by such gaps in (or overlapping) authority. Naturally, civil servants are de-motivated and demoralised. The example of health service delivery in three provinces is given.

Government has redesigned its Medium Term Development Strategy, though efforts to turn this into programme frameworks have been slow. There is no Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Donors, especially AusAID, support government’s policy priorities, providing more than $250m per year in development assistance. Much of this goes to social sectors, as well as infrastructural projects and governance programmes.

Civil society is relative weak, as many people are illiterate and live in isolated areas. These and clan loyalties affect national and local politics. Various small projects initiated by local groups and NGOs contribute to development, but these cannot take the place of capable, developmental leaders and a strong nation state.

Keywords: Politics, Spatial Analysis

Suggested Citation

Cammack, Diana, Chronic Poverty in Papua New Guinea (2007). Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper No. 2008-09, Available at SSRN: or

Diana Cammack (Contact Author)

Overseas Development Institute (ODI) ( email )

111 Westminister Bridge Rd.
London, SE17JD
United Kingdom

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