The ‘wantok’ System as PNG’s Safety Net

The ‘wantok’ (tok pisin = ‘one talk’) system is a social system where people who are related to each other by a common language, ethnicity, district or by provincial boundaries (defined here as ‘wantoks’) will jointly participate in sociopolitical, economic, traditional and cultural activities in Papua New Guinea society. It is a system where people depend on, care for, and help each other in many aspects of society. While traditionally family and clan members were obligated to provide support for each other, the ‘wantok system’ today performs a set of broader roles. It acts, for example, as form of social security, whereby families look after their sick or elderly family members. In Papua New Guinea, relatives of deceased people typically take care of orphans, and if there are no direct relatives surviving, clan members adopt the children who are left behind. In terms of economic activity, people invest in their wantoks, which sets up an obligation on these wantoks to repay when they are in need. When, for example, a man marries a woman and pays a bride-price to his wife’s parents, his wantoks contribute to this. Typically a groom will announce to his wantoks that he is putting together a bride-price payment at an appointed time and his wantoks will contribute. Later, when his wantoks who contributed want to pay their sons’ wives’ bride-price, for example, he is obligated to repay them with what they invested in him. The wantok system has a set of underlying values for its practices. Three such values are protection (physical and social), accountability (to kin) and that allegiance to wantoks outweighs other considerations. When the wantok system operates well in the village and traditional society, it helps maintain a community’s wellbeing, and provides a form of social glue or strength for the community. In the modern context, the wantok system is now under pressure, especially in the urban areas. Not only are these social connections stressed by the concentration and complexity of urban lives, but the expectations and pressures from wantoks can also lead to the abuse of office by employees, managers, public servants and politicians. Often, migrants respond by striving to focus on their individual family rather than the clan, allowing them to accumulate wealth away from the bounds of social obligations. Regardless, the ‘wantok system’ is often held to blame (by Papua New Guineans and outsiders) for a variety of problems within contemporary life in Papua New Guinea – most prominently corruption and nepotism but also, as wantoks start placing untenable pressures on better-off relatives, the breaking down of traditional kinship relations.

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