Rural Development Projects in Papua New Guinea

Rural development projects (sometimes known as integrated rural development projects) arose from a belief that it was possible to bring about sweeping economic and social change in poor rural areas through the application of rational, scientific knowledge. In addition, hierarchical control over appraisal, planning, implementation and the use of funds was required. Rural development projects were an extension of a belief that the characteristics of mature capitalist economies (industrialisation, modern scientific agriculture, infrastructure and improved social services) would bring about political stability within developing countries.

The largest of the international development agencies, the World Bank, had been successful in rebuilding Europe after World War II, but when it applied the same practices to bring about change in poor rural countries it had little success. In 1973, the president of the bank, Robert McNamara, recognised the bank’s failures. He announced a radical ‘redirection’ of effort, away from trickle-down theories to direct investment in poor rural areas in developing countries. Other developed country aid agencies around the world followed the World Bank’s example and began to use rural development projects to attempt to bring about economic and social improvements in poor rural areas.

PNG has been the recipient of a number of integrated rural development projects. A full evaluation of the outcomes of these projects and why they succeeded or failed to achieve their goals in PNG has never been undertaken. Assessments that do exist were done either during the life of the project (a mid-term evaluation, for example) or immediately on completion. A brief review by Crittenden and Lea in 1989 of PNG projects found that it was not possible to make broad generalisations on the outcomes achieved. They also found that the argument that the projects had done very little to accelerate development in poor rural areas was an oversimplification. Nevertheless, while it acknowledged that in rural PNG ‘everything is related to everything else’, the 1989 review argued that, far from being integrated, project components were disparate, separated in space and benefited only particular groups of people. Projects were integrated only by being implemented in a single province under a single management organisation.

Rural development projects in PNG include the East Sepik Rural Development Project (1977–1984), Southern Highlands Rural Development Project (1978–1985), Enga Rural Development Project (1982–1987), West Sepik Provincial Development Project (1986–1991), South Simbu Rural Development Project (1986–1995), North Simbu Rural Development Project (1993–2002), Kandrian–Gloucester Integrated Development Project (1993–1998) and Pomio–Bainings Rural Development Project (late 1980s to early 1990s). Only three of the largest projects are reviewed here.

East Sepik Rural Development Project, 1977–1984

The East Sepik Rural Development Project was the first of the PNG integrated rural development projects. It was proposed as a means to achieve ‘total development’ through the delivery of a number of components that would address the problems faced by small farmers and the causes of rural poverty. It was also to deliver social services and meet the economic and infrastructure needs of the province. The components in the final plan were upgrades of existing activities, including the Gavien land settlement scheme, buffalo farming, inland fisheries, crop intensification, agricultural research and the construction of schools and an agricultural college. The total expenditure was US$14.87 million (around K97 million in 2005 values) provided in the form of a loan from the Asian Development Bank.

The Gavien settlement scheme was designed to benefit poor families who lived in swamps south of the Sepik River. The scheme required settlers to produce rubber, a cash crop with poor returns to labour in PNG, but it gave them access to urban markets for fresh food and to health and education services. Buffalo farming and inland fisheries failed. (A longer-term outcome was an Australian-funded aid project to shoot, from helicopters, buffalo that had escaped from the project, were infected with tuberculosis and were damaging village gardens.) The crop intensification program did not achieve many of its objectives, with the exception of the food and nutrition component. The agricultural college opened at Bainyik, but within ten years was closed due to lack of funds and today there is very little to be seen on the site.

The failures were blamed on poor planning; rushed implementation in order to qualify for the loan; a failure to relate the project to political, social and administrative realities in the province; overuse of foreign consultants (from a number of different companies, making control and coordination difficult); failure to train local staff; slowness in appointing project staff; severe administrative and procurement delays; carrying out research after rather than before the implementation of many agricultural subprojects; the use of completely new activities such as buffalo farming and fish ponds; frequent staff changes; poor monitoring; low economic returns to villagers of the proposed agricultural activities (for example, rubber and rice); and an extremely complex management structure.

Southern Highlands Rural Development Project, 1978–1985

The Southern Highlands Rural Development Project was started in response to a proposal to extend the Highlands Highway from Mendi to Tari in 1973. The new road gave 100 000 rural people access to domestic and international markets for the first time. The project was designed to help people take advantage of this, as well as to boost the internal rates of return on the road project and so justify it in economic terms. The main components of the project were to upgrade 138 km of road between Mendi and Tari; surface and upgrade 41 km of feeder roads to service proposed tea plantations; construct bridges and culverts on 900 km of feeder roads; establish 850 ha of tea, 1280 ha of coffee and 100 ha of cardamom, plus tea and coffee processing facilities; conduct food crop trials and extension work on food crops; and construct and operate secondary schools, a teachers’ college, a nursing school and health subcentres. The food crops component was added to counter the perceived adverse effects of cash cropping on food crop production. The education and health facilities were planned to raise the level of services to an underdeveloped area. The project cost was around US$32 million (K180 million in 2005 values) and was funded by a loan from the World Bank.

A project completion report judged the construction of roads, schools and health centres as successful and they were seen to be having a positive effect. The food crop trials and extension component was judged as less than successful. The cash crop components were ‘disastrous’, with only 260 ha of tea planted, 67 ha of coffee (of which 10 ha survived) and 18 ha of cardamom. The large cash crop plantations were abandoned. The provincial government failed to take over the operation and management of the project components.

The main reasons for the failure of the non-infrastructure components of the project were said to be trying to start too many activities at once, such that project management, implementation capacity and the provincial government ability to absorb them was overwhelmed (provincial government was established in Southern Highlands Province after the project had begun). Further reasons were a failure to train provincial staff; inflexibility and a failure to respond to changing circumstances over time; a lack of commercial orientation in the cash crops components and ‘incompetence’ in managing this component; and a serious loss of knowledge caused by the failure of foreign staff to write reports on the outcome of their work before leaving the project.

Enga Yaaka Lasemana, 1982–1987

The Enga Rural Development Project grew out of the Enga Rural Development Study, which was instituted by the national government under the less developed areas sectoral program of the National Public
Expenditure Plan. The Enga Provincial Government was responsible for the implementation of the project and the national government was only responsible for negotiating the loan and administering the funds.
From over 200 possible projects arising from the Enga Rural Development Study, 40 were selected for the project. A final plan was produced in 1981 after appraisal by the World Bank. A loan was negotiated with the World Bank to provide funds from 1982.

The project included infrastructure (new office buildings, a remand centre, aid posts and health centres, road upgrading, hydro-electricity plants, sawmills, schools); a law and order component (Enga was the site of frequent inter-group fighting); community development; village food crop production and cash cropping systems (coffee, pyrethrum and cardamom); livestock management; vegetable marketing; industrial training; and improved province financial and management services.

Infrastructure and road upgrading was generally completed satisfactorily. However, the objectives of many of the other components either were not achieved, or failed to be sustained after the project was completed. An assessment of the project suggested that there were too many components; the project suffered from high staff turnover; excessive delays in recruiting staff; poor staff selection; poor training; lack of motivation; poor supervision; problems with securing land from customary owners; continued fighting and law and order problems that resulted in some infrastructure built by the project being destroyed; local political upheavals, sometimes associated with the fighting; personality clashes; and a loss of interest by the World Bank in the outcomes.


The Crittenden and Lea review of five PNG rural development projects recommended that future projects needed to be small and have a low budget; integrated into provincial planning structures; oriented towards training, institution-building and reform of local institutions; have local consent and commitment; have simple management and monitoring procedures; have low numbers of foreigners involved; and be properly evaluated. This review argued that the projects were not complete failures. The widely held perception that the projects failed was the result of comparing the outcomes with unrealistic objectives and with the manipulated cost-benefit analyses and inflated rhetoric that were used to justify their funding. More needs to be known about the long-term consequences of these projects, whether any parts of them were successful and the reasons for that success.

A workshop was held in Madang in 2004 on rural development ‘projects’ in PNG that had been successful. The findings of the workshop were published in the Development Bulletin No. 67 in 2005. The successful projects were small, low budget and, above all, were focused on the development of rural communities and not on whole provinces. The participants concluded that successful rural development in PNG will be community-based and focused on the transformation of local polities and economies.

One thought on “Rural Development Projects in Papua New Guinea”

  1. These were the very first Rural Development projects in PNG. The idea was to provide incomes for local communities. There were no District level administrations at that time or Local Level Government. The Provincial Level Government had little authority to manage these agricultural plantations . Local people would not have agreed to outsiders coming into their territories to tell them what to do. Even today, it is unacceptable for outsiders to come and manage local initiatives.
    New projects must be locally partnered. Top down projects will not work.

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