Tuesday, May 16, 2023

What is holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG?


Why should you care about the economic opportunities available to the people of Papua New Guinea?  Perhaps some readers didn’t even know the location of Papua New Guinea (PNG) before looking at the accompanying map.

There is a lot to be said for the view that the people of PNG should be left to solve their own problems for themselves. However, one of the problems the people of PNG need to solve is how to reduce their dependence on foreign aid. Another problem they need to solve is how to cope with living in a part of the world in which China and the United States are increasingly competing for influence.

Joe Biden, the president of the United States is to visit Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, on May 22 for discussions with Pacific Island Forum members, while on his way to Sydney for a Quad meeting.

My personal interest in the economic opportunities available to people in PNG stems from having worked there as a consultant on economic policy, having visited as a tourist on several occasions, and not least, from having relatives who live there. I maintain an interest in economic and social development in PNG and have written about it on this blog in the past (here, here, here, and here).

In this article I suggest that opportunities for human flourishing in PNG are less promising than recent macroeconomic indicators might suggest. After considering some macro-economic indicators, I briefly discuss population statistics, corruption and profligacy, the law and order problem, poor opportunities for young people, and lack of economic freedom.

Macro-economic indicators

The World Bank’s latest Economic Update paints a fairly rosy picture, with economic growth of 4.5 percent for 2022. Government revenue from mining and petroleum taxes surged (reflecting the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on natural gas prices). The increased revenue led to a reduction in the fiscal deficit. The magnitude of public debt remains a problem, with interest payments exceeding public spending on both health and education.

Inflation at around 6 percent per annum is not unduly high by comparison with other countries, but rising food prices have made life increasingly difficult for many people in urban areas. Foreign exchange rationing, associated with pegging of the Kina against the USD, has been a hindrance to business.

Population statistics

I mention population statistics mainly because questions that have recently been raised about the reliability of official estimates of the population illustrate the existence of deep-seated problems in public administration. The official estimate of population for 2022 is between 9 and 11 million. However, a leaked UN report has suggested that the population could be as high as 17 million. In this instance, the official estimate seems more likely to be correct. However, the last credible census took place 20 years ago, so no-one really knows the size of the PNG population.

It is widely accepted that the population of PNG has been growing rapidly and that the majority of people are relatively young, probably under 25 years old.

Corruption and profligacy

Corruption is still a major problem in PNG, although there seems to have been some reduction over the last decade. Of the 180 countries included in the Corruption Perceptions Index, only 50 were rated as more corrupt than PNG in 2022.

Profligacy in spending of public money by some government ministers is legendary. For example, in 2018, when PNG hosted the APEC summit, Justin Tkatchenko attracted controversy by purchasing 40 custom-made Maserati luxury cars. He claimed that they would sell like hot cakes after the event. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. More recently, the same minister again attracted criticism for taking an overly large contingent of people with him, at public expense, to the coronation of King Charles III. It was his intemperate response, labelling critics as “primitive animals”, which eventually led to his resignation from the position of Foreign Minister.

The law-and-order problem

There has been a law-and-order problem is PNG for many years. In 2015 I wrote:

“It is unsafe for tourists to walk around most parts of Port Moresby alone except within the boundaries of major hotels, modern shopping malls and other locations where security is provided. The same applies to local residents. Tourists are more fortunate than most of the locals because they can afford to be transported safely from one secure area to another.”

It is particularly unsafe for women and girls to be in public places. A recent article on DEVPOLICYBLOG by Sharon Banuk, a university student, describes the nature of the problem that she has faced in staying safe.

PNG is ranked second, behind Venezuela, as the country with the highest number of reported crimes per 100,000 people. The ranking of PNG seems to have remained the same since 2017, having risen from 16th place in 2015.

Poor economic opportunities for young people

The law-and-order problem has been linked to the increasing problem of youth unemployment in an article by Ms. Julian Melpa for the National Research Institute. A recent study found 68 per cent of people aged between 14 to 35 in Port Moresby were unemployed. Even people with tertiary qualifications often find it difficult to obtain employment.

The difficulty of finding employment is illustrated the accompanying photo of job seekers, published with a report in The National newspaper on Feb 6, 2023. The crowd were competing for a few advertised vacancies at a hotel in Port Moresby.

Lack of economic freedom

International agencies tend to label the main deficiencies in economic freedom in countries like PNG as governance problems. That labelling may make their advice more palatable to politicians who have ideological hangups about free markets but it obscures the adverse impact of lack of economic freedom on incentives to invest, innovate and create greater opportunities for human flourishing.

Only 36 of the 176 countries included in the Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom have a lower ranking than PNG. A similar picture emerges from the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom ratings. Only 43 of the 165 countries included in the Fraser index have a lower economic freedom rating than PNG.

PNG has particularly low ratings for rule of law (covering property rights, judicial effectiveness, and government integrity) business freedom, and investment freedom.

PNG governments have obviously been having major problems in performing the core functions of government in protecting natural rights of individuals to be safe and have opportunities to flourish. Governments face a formidable challenge in protecting economic freedom in PNG, with most of the population living in village communities and having little contact with the market economy.

However, similar challenges face governments in some other countries. Some African countries which face similar challenges now seem to be performing better than PNG in facilitating growth of economic opportunities.


Readers who are interested in a more comprehensive picture of the well-being of people in PNG should visit the relevant country site of The Legatum Prosperity Index. For the purpose of the Legatum index, prosperity is defined broadly as occurring "when all people have the opportunity to thrive by fulfilling their unique potential and playing their part in strengthening their communities and nations".

My article mentions a visit to PNG by Joe Biden, which was scheduled for May 22. Unfortunately, this  visit will not occur as planned because he has given higher priority to political negotiations over the U.S. government debt ceiling.  

No comments: