Mistrust All the Way Up in PNG

From Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea, by Michael French Smith (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 65-66:

Many Papua New Guineans probably were easily convinced that the World Bank was up to no good because they had no faith in their own government, which had sought help from the bank. In fact, many private citizens I spoke with in 1995 distrusted the Papua New Guinea government even more than the World Bank. They mistrusted not just the current government but the government as an institution. The staff of local-level government organizations expressed deep distrust of every level of government above their own, and some village representatives to these local bodies did not trust the staff. People in provincial towns spoke with disdain of the “people in Moresby” the capital, who were “living in a different world” as one activist put it. Activists in rural areas sometimes made the same complaint about those in the provincial towns. As a representative of a rural women’s organization in the East Sepik Province told me, “the bigshots in Wewak” [pop. 25,000!] did not understand what life was like still farther afield.

Such criticisms might sound familiar almost anywhere, but mistrust of government has a special flavor in Papua New Guinea, and this distinctive and pungent mistrust provided fertile ground for the reaction to the bank’s ERP [= Economic Recovery Program] policy prescriptions. In light of conditions in 1995, many Papua New Guineans felt that the government—not just the sitting government, but every government since independence—simply had not proven itself. Many also felt that the elite Papua New Guineans who ran the government treated the citizens of the country unfairly and unequally. Europeans working in Papua New Guinea or reporting on events there often complained of corruption in the higher circles, but they were no more vocal on this issue than rank-and-file Papua New Guineans themselves.

Many Papua New Guineans probably also distrusted the government because they still saw it as a foreign entity. Papua New Guineans had taken the tiller at independence, but the boat itself was built on the European model. The electoral and parliamentary political system was nothing like precolonial political systems, and these differing systems were only awkwardly coordinated.

Above all, the idea that the people of Papua New Guinea were all members of a single nation and that this identity transcended narrower affiliations—with family, kinship group, village, and speakers of the same language—had not taken hold. There had been no prolonged, popular struggle for independence in which disparate groups throughout the country might have forged a sense of unity or acquired a stake in new national institutions. The nation, too, was an unfamiliar concept to many. Indeed, some Papua New Guinea peoples did not regard themselves as having ceded their autonomy and accepted subordination to the greater power of the state. In fact, to some the state appeared positively menacing. In the 1990s, Papua New Guineans caught up in Christian revival movements in parts of the country associated the state with the Antichrist.

Doesn’t sound that different from everywhere else on earth these days.

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Filed under democracy, economics, NGOs, Papua New Guinea

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