Social protection and social safety nets in urban Papua New Guinea

by Michelle N Rooney, Australian National University

With an emphasis on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, development agencies conceptualise social protection as interventions that support social security through enabling access to sustainable and resilient livelihoods and, providing coping measures to deal with hardship. This includes identifying and mitigating the risks people face in their livelihoods individually and collectively. Globally,the applicability of formal social protection mechanisms driven by development actors has drawn debate as to the fiscal viability and applicability within the political economy of developing countries.

In the Pacific, social protection, safety nets and urbanization have attracted increasing attention in recent years. This is reflected in the policies of the Australian Government as the major donor in the region. This paper draws on this recent work to highlight some key considerations for social protection in urban Papua New Guinea. Following Jolly et al (2015) this paper argues for the need to move beyond income, labour markets, transfers and social insurance towards acknowledging social protection as a holistic approach that also encompasses vulnerabilities and risk faced by those who are poor. It should also address social injustices arising from prevailing inequalities in society and the law.

These arguments resonate with the urban PNG context. Whilst economic growth is a key driver in urban livelihoods and social protection, urban residents face dynamic and rapid changes that shape their ability to securel and and housing, water and sanitation, and services such health and education. Understanding and addressing social protection in PNG requires starting with an understanding that for most urban Papua New Guineans the economy and social life are not separate spheres. Policy makers need to strike a balance between a development agenda that promotes formal social protection interventions and that supports local social practices.

Urban PNG

Urbanisation processes began at the time of colonisation and at present around 13 per cent of Papua New Guineans now live in urban settings with around 50 per cent of the urban population living in the two largest centres of Port Moresby and Lae. Urban areas comprise considerable diversity in culture, ecology, geography and economic activities. Despite being the capital, Port Moresby is cut off from the rest of the country by road. In contrast, Lae is linked to the Highlands region and Madang by the Highlands Highway, and is a major industrial centre. Population mobility and fluidity between urban and rural areas continue to influence circular migration so that many people retain links to their homes. Even so, for an increasing number of people, urban residence is permanent with many unable or unwilling to return home. This diversity and the rapid change mean that each urban centre needs to be considered in its particular ecological, economic, political and social context.

Historically, Pacific Island countries have emphasised customary principles and self reliance as reflected in government policies. Traditional social structures, land access and local customary practices are interconnected. Gift exchange is an important part of ensuring continued social group identity and associated land access and use rights. Papua New Guineans’ lives depend on closely knit social and kinship networks where mutual support is morally valued. These basic principles shape urban Papua New Guineans’ sociality, and along with the historical and place based contexts, mean that urban citizens draw on diverse and multiple sources of political, economic and cultural value systems to survive, many of which are highly gendered. Sustaining life from formal waged employment, income earned in the informal economy, and traditional forms of ceremonial and mutually supportive exchange are not mutually exclusive, but are interrelated parts of everyday life.

However, rapid change and increasing inequalities lead to particular vulnerabilities in urban settings. The tension between global market processes and informal/moral economic processes which form the basis for traditional social safety nets, is evident in urban areas. Dependency on money and waged employment and commodified land markets, means some of the traditional forms of social protection erode. New social patterns also challenge traditional forms of kinship relationships. Income and other forms of structural inequality have contributed to visible class distinctions in PNG society. The following sections explore key basic needs of land and housing, water and sanitation, and services like health and education, and security in the urban context.

Land and housing shape the urban political economy

Urban land and housing involve multi-tiered discourse among customary landowners, the state, property developers, state leaseholders and migrants who wish to settle on land. Historical colonial migration and housing policies that regulated the movement and settlement of indigenous migrant workers have left a visible legacy that divides urban spaces between formal housing and informal settlements.

As a result, formal housing areas are usually occupied by expatriate and elite indigenous government officials and private sector employees. The informal or low cost housing areas are usually occupied by lower income families. This history also influences housing and land policy in urban areas. On the one hand, authorities have tolerated urban informal settlements.

Shared family housing strategies are a common feature of urban life. Most people cannot afford the rent or mortgage rates for the formal housing sector and rely on being accommodated by relatives or moving into informal settlements. In urban areas, the poorest and most vulnerable are dependent on others for their housing needs – either living with relatives in formal housing or in settlements. As a result land and housing are transacted in diverse ways.

Therefore, a simple distinction between formal housing and informal settlements as markers of those who are poor or rich obscures the complexity of the dynamics of land and housing in PNG. There are both relatively rich and poor people residing in both formal and informal housing arrangements. Whether people choose to live in formal or informal housing arrangements, they face social, economic and moral choices about their living arrangements which impact on crowding or household finances. Choosing to live in informal settlements is cost effective and involves collective negotiations and social relationships. Threats of eviction from property developers and the state however, mean that residents of settlements need the social connections and resilience to negotiate their claims and possession of the land using all political avenues—the court systems as well as engagements with customary landowners. Moreover, as land in urban areas becomes more valuable, wealthier residents of cities are seeking land in informal settlements and also making use of their social connections to access it. In the process, poorer people living in settlements become displaced and have to move to other locations.

This process is also gendered and women in particular face social and cultural pressures to be hospitable and generous, and make their homes available to family. Faced with overcrowding and its associated problems, women are often the family members who initiate moves.

In terms of vulnerability in housing, what matters is a person’s or family’s ability to secure housing, rather than their residential location within a formal or informal settlement area. A person’s ability to secure formal tenancy lease or housing mortgage reflects their income but they might be housing several families. Some families live with relatives in formal areas despite not having the ability to rent or mortgage. On the other hand, a person’s ability to secure housing and land in the settlement reflects their social resilience. Other families with more income prefer to live in settlements to be more cost effective and be able to afford other important things like education. Newcomers to urban settlements, especially when they are moving from the homes of relatives in formal areas can face vulnerability in shelter as they seek to establish themselves in a settlement.

The transitionary process into the settlement usually involves residing with kin in the settlement or erecting a temporary shelter made of canvas whilst waiting to secure more tenured land and materials to build. Access to a piece of land involves nurturing and securing approval from local residents and leaders in processes that require the ability to interact with local mediators. Vulnerability in securing shelter in urban spaces is multifarious as are the powers of the actors involved. Vulnerability is most acute when poorer people are in transient situations. In recent years there has been a greater incidence of evictions in the name of development. Social safety in terms of shelter requires us to focus on those who are dependent on others for housing, who carry the burden of housing others, who are in a transient situation resulting from loss of housing such as loss of employer provided housing, eviction from a hosts home, or eviction as a community of settlers or displacement by wealthier people or by developments in the city.

Water and sanitation, and services

Access to water is an important example of how the political economy of urban service delivery shapes social protection. The land dynamics described above means that those who opt to live in informal settlement arrangements often reside on land that is customary or state land. Nationally, there are improvements in the provision of water to vulnerable urban communities, however, the success of these rely on local governance and the ability of local leaders to engage with water and city authorities to ensure a regular water supply to their community.

In urban settlements in particular local governance mechanisms for securing water services are important and collective action is required. These local processes can also lead to tensions within communities. Residents of informal settlements along with urban authorities and elected politicians rely on water governance systems that draw upon principles of ‘community service obligations’. Water services affect the community collectively and individually. For example, when the collective bill is not paid water is cut and the entire community is affected. While financial mechanisms to support and facilitate the supply of water are key, it is also important to ensure that local governance mechanisms include processes to negotiate between urban municipal entities supplying water and residents paying bills. This can involve multiple negotiations and actors.

The legally defined divisions between what constitutes formal residential spaces and informal or illegal urban settlements is a key factor shaping the delivery of services like water, education and health services in urban PNG. Urban communities without legal tenure over land are usually disqualified from having formal government services provided until the land has been secured. Lack of water and sanitation facilities arising out of the urban water supply arrangements also disqualify urban communities from accessing government funds. Churches and NGOs are particularly important in engaging in this context and good at working with collective bodies at local levels.

Money, incomes and food security

In urban areas people are more reliant on cash incomes for accessing food. Income earning strategies and stability rely largely on the labour market generated by the formal employment economy. However, for most low wage earners, wages do not last the entire fortnight cycle and thus families supplement waged income with other income sources. Unemployment is high, with men more likely to be in waged employment while women are mostly engaged in the informal economy. Most families therefore combine waged incomes with income generated from non-waged income such as street vending or sales of items from small market stalls near their homes. Women’s income generation efforts in the non-waged sector are often impeded by the unequal burden of care and household unpaid work that they bear.

Social relationships play an important role in survival and livelihood strategies of urban residents where families rely on shared family incomes. In addition to their individual and clan exchange commitments, they are expected to support their extended family and kin. Cultural principles of exchange, including the moral ethos of generosity and reciprocity,are invoked to ensure that support is continued. Those who earn relatively high cash incomes come under immense pressure to distribute their earning and this can lead to loss of productivity and morale resulting in people leaving their employment. In this context, where income is unequally distributed and there are large number of low income earners, people with low or no incomes rely on food sharing for their daily meals. Food shortages are a challenge for poorer urban families. This means that from a household perspective the division often drawn between formal and informal economies are arbitrary.

Security crime and security

High levels of violence and crime, and the weak capacity of law and justice systems cross cut all the above issues. The two largest centres, Lae and Port Moresby, have among the highest homicide rates in the world with 66 per 100,000 and 33 per 100,000 people, respectively. Robbery, assault and family and sexual violence are prevalent forms of violence. High crime rates not only severely impact the business and investment environment but also productivity. Poverty and unemployment are drivers of disenfranchisement and disillusionment and a large population of youth are key factors driving violence. Social and cultural factors that influence the status of women and gender inequality drive family and sexual violence.

Chronic violence presents a dilemma for family social safety nets. Not only do they face security constraints in earning a living but also have to cope with chronic challenges of violence within their families and their communities, which often leave them victimised and traumatised. In the process women and children are often the most affected; directly victims of physical violence or indirectly via reduced social and economic empowerment.

In contrast to a weak police force there exists a large, growing and diverse security industry that exists to deal with crime and violence–drawing on fear of crime,while also providing employment for many young men. Operating parallel to formal law and justice systems are highly localised and largely autonomous local institutions for mediation driven and overseen by local leaders and actors. This is particularly true in urban settlements. In general crime, violence and conflict mediation are dealt with mostly autonomous from the state. Police interventions are usually in the form of an overt raid or to deliver eviction notices for land. In a recent report commissioned by the World Bank the authors note the mediation capabilities of local urban institutions and the importance of recognising what works in urban settings.


In urban PNG perhaps the two key issues that cross cut all areas of social protection are the nature of contestations over land tenure. The divide between those who reside in legal and illegal land tenure settings, as well as the mobility between these two spaces create a political economy particular to urban space. This divide has also been reinforced by a policy stance that has been repressive towards settlements, the informal sector, and poor sections of the population more generally.

In this context, urban governance is complicated by the overlapping forms of authority – formal state governance, local customary and traditional institutions which characteristically function in disparate ways. This makes it difficult to rely on a single form of governance. For example, in Port Moresby there is a lack of coordination between the National Capital District Commission and the Office for Urbanisation. The system of local level governments and ward councils that are provided for under the legislation do not appear to function in the city. The increasing trend towards allocating elected members of the National Parliament with District Services Improvement Program funds has also led to a situation where MPs increasingly use funds to engage directly with communities in client-patron like arrangements. These engagements are important for securing services like water and tend to intensify during election periods, but they are largely ad hoc and are not necessarily consistent with broader urban plans. Although there is a customary landowners’ assembly it is fraught with capacity and funding problems which limit its ability to engage with other institutions.

From a policy perspective, support for urban governance needs to be based on coalitions and partnership that accommodate and work flexibly within these multilayered and contested structures. Building coalitions of shared interests and values between urban spaces locally,nationally, and internationally might be one approach to strengthening urban governance. Likewise, strong economies will provide the basis for employment and therefore partnerships with the private sector are important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.