Last updated: May 2018
In 2015 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked PNG as being the 158th lowest of 173 countries on the Human Development Index (UNDP, 2015). This composite measure of human wellbeing is based on a person’s ability to lead a long and healthy life, their life expectancy at birth and their ability to acquire knowledge (ibid.). The state of human development in PNG has subsequently been described as being at a low level (UNDP, 2015). Other multilateral and bilateral organisations have also reported on PNG’s poor state of human development. According to AusAid (2013), 30 to 40 per cent of the seven million (plus) population in PNG is believed to be facing hardship and living with either limited or non-existent access to basic health, education and sanitation services. Health related development indicators further signal that PNG has a high level of infant mortality and maternal mortality (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2013), as well as a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS (Dinnen, Porter, & Sage, 2011), malaria, and tuberculosis (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2013). Table 1 identifies a suite of human development indicators relevant to PNG, as recorded by the World Bank.
PNG’s poor development rankings exist despite the country having maintained a high level of national economic growth over the last decade. The distribution of income is therefore an issue for human development within PNG (Government of PNG, 2015). As recognized within the results of a Household Income Expenditure Survey undertaken in 2009/2010, income redistribution in PNG is concentrated within urban areas and limited to the privileged few (Government of PNG, 2015). The developmental consequences of this distributional bias become evident in Table 2, which illustrates that the incidence of food poverty and basic needs poverty is higher in rural areas of PNG. The high level of food poverty within rural areas of PNG is particularly notable, as food poverty is generally low within the Pacific Island context as a consequence of subsistence agriculture and customary forms of land tenure, which help protect land use rights and access (Government of PNG, 2015).
It is nevertheless noted that the aggregate data used to establish the development benchmarks in Tables 1 and 2 have the ability to mask differentiated levels of development across the country. According to the United Nations Human Development Programme (2014), in addition to rural–urban inequality and differences derived from wealth, national development indicators conceal provincial level development variations, as well as differences derived as a result of gender. In terms of gender-based development disparities, within PNG human development measures vary significantly as a result of gender (UNDP, 2014). Papua New Guinean males have been recognised as scoring more highly on virtually every socio-economic wellbeing and empowerment-based UNDP development measure (UNDP, 2014). Relatedly, gender-based violence and discrimination against women is recognised to be widespread in PNG, and exists as a key barrier to development within the country (Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2013).
With respect to provincial disparities in development, outside of the National Capital District, the five Island provinces of PNG (including Manu, East and West New Britain, Bougainville and New Ireland Province) have been recorded as having a higher level of human development than the rest of the country. The United Nations Development Programme has further reported that within this island group, approximately 80 per cent of people over the age of 8 years can read and write (2014). Although this literacy rate is lower in comparison to the National Capital District, which has a 90 per cent literacy rate, literacy rates within the Island’s region are nevertheless higher than the three other regions of PNG (as highlighted in Table 3). The cause of this provincial level demographic development disparity is not specifically addressed in development or within literature, but may be related to the earlier European contact with the Island’s region and its earlier integration into the colonial economy in comparison to the Highland’s Region (Connell, 1997). In contrast, the broader urban–rural development divide has been attributed, in part, to the poor state of social services within rural areas (UNDP, 2014). Within the rural environment, where the majority of people live, government social services have been described as being in a state of ‘near abandonment’ (Kepore & Imbun, 2010) and ‘semicollapse’ (Dinnen, 2001) (see also Imbun, Duarte, & Smith, 2015).
More generally, the low level of human development in PNG has also been attributed to the nationwide governance and institutional capacity issues, a lack of institutional accountability and transparency, endemic law and order issues, a dispersed population and development challenges associated with geographic isolation (Filer, 2012; Koyama, 2004; 2005; Imbun et al 2015). The UNDP has further argued that, to date, natural resource-based economic growth in PNG has done little to improve the state of human development for the majority of the population (UNDP, 2014). This, they argue, is a result of the weak linkages established between the extractive sector and the rest of the economy (UNDP, 2014). In turn, the government’s failure to deliver effective social services and establish community infrastructure, together with the lack of income generating activities within rural areas, has increased pressure on mining companies to assume a quasi-governmental development role within mining areas (Connell, 1997; Imbun, 2007; Jackson, 1993; Kepore & Imbun, 2010).