While commenting on community-based corrections, a good friend of PNG, John Fowke, once offered a thought: “Many towns and cities of PNG might benefit hugely from a reverse migration scheme: a return of those who can’t survive without crime to their rural heritage.”
Fowke immediately followed with a question “whether a village would be an attractive and viable alternative these days?”
Both thought and question are not original, of course.
They have been discussed time and again by social scientists, policy makers and just about every bush expert on matters Papua New Guinean – you just need to read the letters pages of the newspapers or listen to Talk Back radio.
Still, both remain relevant and, more importantly, they need to be addressed seriously.
Most Government policies since Independence have been geared towards getting goods and basic services down to the village level to improve living standards in those rural communities so that young people are not tempted to come to the cities and towns and also to attract those in towns back to the villages.
While good on paper, none of those well intentioned policies have really succeeded. The single biggest failure by all administrations has been the inability to implement policies, programmes and projects relating to development in the rural sector where some 85% of the country’s 6.2 million people live.
In so doing, those various administrations have increased outward migration of people from the villages towards the towns and cities.
This has crowded out all urban cities and resulted in burgeoning settlements, placing pressure on services designed for one fifth the size of current populations and leading to rising crimes in the cities.
Studies show, for instance, that Port Moresby’s water and sewerage system was designed in the colonial days for a town of 40,000.
Today, the population is anywhere between 350,000 and 400,000.
The pressure upon roads, upon electricity, upon telephony services, upon housing and upon land is acute.
Since all Government and business headquarters are located in Port Moresby, Government is spending more money on what city-based political and bureaucratic leaders see as the immediate problem to alleviate congestion.
In doing so, they inadvertently increase the attractiveness of Port Moresby to those in other towns and cities as well as those from the village so that the circular spiralling effect of this problem will continue into the future.
Only in the two terms of the Somare Government have we seen actual money being allocated to rural sector programmes. The Treasury Roll Out Programme, District Services Improvement Programme (DSIP), the National Agriculture Development Plan (NADP), the Rehabilitation of Education Sector Infrastructure (RESI), and the Transport Infrastructure Fund and the much increased electoral development funds (now standing at K10 per electorate) has seen nearly K2 billion allocated directly to rural areas.
Whether or not this massive outlay of money turns the tide in outward migration and whether it makes a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of rural people, time will tell.
For now, to answer Fowke’s question of whether or not the village will be a “viable and attractive enough place these days”, the answer is yes and no.
Yes, it can be an attractive and viable enough place for the older people who are married if there is enough economic activities in the rural areas and if basic services such as education, health and transport infrastructure are in good running condition.
The rural communities will also be attractive places for those who have had enough of living on the fringes in towns and cities and who desire a return to their homes if only some of the basic lifestyles of towns could be replicated there.
No, there will always be that class of young people from the villages who will want to see the bright lights of cities and towns. For this group, there will be no stop until they have seen those lights but so long as they know there is a good and maybe an even better and cheaper life to be had in the village, there will be an attraction to return after they tire of the city life.
The trick, therefore, is to ensure that policy is translated into tangible programmes and projects in the rural sector.