Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime: Fragility and Resilience in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea has made significant development progress in recent years but many communities remain vulnerable. Photo: ADB
Papua New Guinea has made significant development progress in recent years but many communities remain vulnerable. Photo: ADB

By Artur Andrysiak, Henrik Lindroth

To understand fragility and resilience in Papua New Guinea, look to history and the people living in the country’s most vulnerable areas.

In the 1968 book Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime: A New Guinea Autobiography, author Albert Maori Kiki recounts his life journey from a highly traditional upbringing as a child of parents from two of the estimated 800 language and tribal groups in the country, through to his first introduction to foreigners in the 1930s and foreign education, and on to becoming Papua New Guinea’s deputy prime minister.

The book’s message – shared with us by Archbishop Douglas William Young, of the Archdiocese of Mount Hagen – captures the essence of a conclusion that we reached during a recent visit to Papua New Guinea to assess the fragility of the country and how ADB and other development organizations could be more effective in this unique environment.

Any understanding of the fragilities in Papua New Guinea must consider the speed at which the country has had to evolve. This perspective also highlights the enormity of the progress the country and its people have already made, starting with but not limited to the development of roads, electricity, water supply, other key infrastructure, and basic services such as health and education. Nonetheless, so much more remains to be done.

During a townhall meeting with more than 20 people in Tambul in the Western Highlands Province, we learned that deeply embedded traditional community networks and informal social support systems ensured the survival of high-altitude communities that lost most of their harvest in an unusually severe frost in 2015. Participants told us that, although there was no external help, the less-affected communities at lower levels mobilized relief and shared the little they had to feed their neighbors.

The issues this process has created permeate Papua New Guinea society and underlie the country’s development challenges. Whether categorized as political, cultural, or economic, or affecting the environment, security, the rule of law, and society at large, the resulting fragilities often interact, influence one another, and change.

In Mendi, the capital of Southern Highlands Province, three tribal chiefs from the less accessible areas of Papua New Guinea’s rugged interior spoke of the many challenges their communities face. These include a lack of roads, electricity, and running water; inadequate access to education and health care services; and the limited reach of government. The chiefs also told the team about their communities’ law and order issues, including the tragic impact of violent tribal feuds. Periodic tribal fighting has always been part of the reality in Papua New Guinea, but it has now become much more destructive. High-powered guns have replaced bows and spears. Clashes have become more frequent due to growing populations and demand for land, and the fighting lasts for months or years. Death tolls often reach double figures, and women and children are no longer spared.

  Understanding fragility and resilience in Papua New Guinea

Yet our team’s interviews also highlighted the many existing and potential sources of resilience rooted in traditional approaches. In addition to providing services and support in remote areas where public services are scarce, faith-based groups and nongovernment organizations often play the crucial role of mediators. The peace deals they seek to facilitate are based on the traditional peace agreements that have ended tribal and other conflicts over time.

Other Highlands visits showed that the same long-established local traditions and institutions were key to minimizing suffering in the wake of a highly destructive 2018 earthquake that killed about 160 people. The interviews also underlined the Papua New Guinea’s high vulnerability to economic, social, and disaster-related shocks and the need to be better prepared to deal with them. The needs of central and local authorities for appropriate technologies and capacity strengthening to improve planning, monitoring, risk management and mitigation, quick impact relief, and resilience demonstrate some of the areas where development partners have an opportunity to play a more prominent role in providing assistance and support.

The team’s discussions with the Council of Women in East Sepik highlighted the important role that women’s groups play in Papua New Guinea society and the support they provide to some of the most vulnerable parts of communities. The enormous challenges confronting women and girls in Papua New Guinea include the high frequency of gender-based violence, limited economic opportunities, low female representation in the political process, and insufficient inclusion of women in planning and decision making at all levels. The Council of Women actively advocates for women’s rights and works to change gender stereotypes and improve the standing and overall living conditions for Papua New Guinea’s women. This has helped reduce abuse and gender-based violence in the country.

Papua New Guinea and other Pacific countries that exhibit fragility do so in both common and different ways. The root causes are likewise both similar and distinct. The results, however, are generally the same. Governments encumbered by fragile situations often struggle to carry out their basic functions, deliver public goods, and reduce poverty. Natural disasters, unfavorable shifts in commodity prices, and other external shocks hit these nations especially hard. They also lack the capacity to manage and build resilience to risks.

Getting as full a picture as possible of fragility through these assessments helps establish not only what needs to be done to mitigate the extreme vulnerability of countries facing fragile situations and bolster their development results, but also how best to go about it. In Papua New Guinea, understanding the dynamics and effects of explosive social change can be a start.