THIRTY-four years is a mature age for a man, youth yet for a nation. Children born on Independence Day are today 34, in their prime and having lived half of their productive life.
As a nation, PNG has lived a heady, even rowdy lifestyle – oblivious to the needs of the future and squandering its resources on what is good for today. As a person, you could describe PNG as happy-go-lucky, impulsive and even irresponsible.
As we pause to reflect on the past 34 years, we must realise that we have been luckier than most. Our democratic institutions remain, including that of our Parliament. Our economy remains free and vibrant and, for the last eight years, it has registered unprecedented growth.
There have been strident gains in certain areas and pathetic regression in others.
On the balance sheet of the nation, we have large amounts entered in the credit side but larger amounts in the debit side. In a word, we have mismanaged our good fortunes and blessings. In a country so rich in resources, our people are pathetically poor.
This is not what our first Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, wanted for PNG when he ushered in Independence with these words at midnight on national radio on Sept 15, 1975: “We have talked about this day, planned for it, worked for it and looked forward to it. This country and its people now enter independence and sovereignty and as from now we will be counted among the family of nations.”
One minute later, first Governor-General, the late Sir John Guise declared: “Papua New Guinea is now independent. We have, at this point in time, broken with our colonial past and we now stand as an independent nation in our own right.”
Later that day, as Independence Day celebrations were drawing to a close, the Australian naval band sounded the Last Post and the Australian flag was lowered as PNG’s Bird of Paradise fluttered atop the flag post. Sir John was overheard observing: “See, we are lowering it, not tearing it down.” The transition from colonial mandate to independent state 34 years ago was peaceful, filled with promise and nostalgia.
As we gather to celebrate our Independence anniversary, there is a national health emergency declared in three provinces – Eastern Highlands, Gulf and Morobe – to contain a cholera outbreak. HIV/AIDS, which was unknown at Independence, is wreaking havoc among our youthful population and from all indications there appears to be no stopping its insidious advance.
People continue to die from malaria, pneumonia and dysentery. It would appear that the health of our people is worse today than it was at Independence.
We are no better in education, where far too many children are out of schools either because the schools have closed or because they cannot afford to pay the fees. Education standards have dropped rather than improved.
Crime and underemployment have taken a firm grip on the population. Other vital statistics in welfare, in maternal and child health and in good governance and corruption are equally dismal. Much of this has had to do with the leadership and management of the country.
PNG is far richer than most countries its size and richer by half than most countries which are far bigger than it. Resource projects such as Bougainville Copper, Ok Tedi, Misima mines, Porgera, Kutubu oil, Moran oil, and Gobe oil have netted billions of kina in revenue for PNG.
Australia has spent over K28 billion over the 34 years and other bilateral and multi-lateral donors have contributed billions more towards PNG. Yet there appears to be no evidence of all this money in the country. The people continue to starve and indications are poverty is advancing more rapidly rather than declining in most parts of the country.
The country’s performance record with the Millennium Development Goals has been poor. It is unlikely to meet any of the eight goals by the target date of 2015. On almost all fronts, from health and education to gender equality, combating HIV/AIDS and sustainable development and environmental friendly practices, PNG has much more to do, and efforts have been declining rather than improving.
And this at a time when the economy has finally been growing for eight straight years, when there is money in the Government coffers and in the banking system, when commodity prices are at an all-time high and reserves are filled to bursting point.
It all boils down to management. Management of the social and economic fortunes of PNG will decide whether we head for disaster or stride purposely towards growth and prosperity.