Make agriculture a budget priority

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday 06th December 2011

TODAY, all eyes will be on Treasurer Don Polye, who is expected to hand down the much-anticipated Papua New Guinea’s money plan for 2012.
We gather it will be a balanced one, as reportedly claimed by the treasurer over the last few weeks.
Of interest to the country and our international partners will be the money plan and how balanced it is, taking into consideration all the enablers of development and growth in PNG.
Balanced or not, it is anticipated that health, education, infrastructure and law and order will feature prominently, which has been the trend over the years. This trend is expected to be retained while other important enablers of growth, in particular agriculture, will be pushed to the side as usual.
While these areas are important enablers for development and growth, we are of the opinion that any money plan that is considered balanced should feature agriculture at the top.
This is because agriculture remains the backbone of the country, supporting the livelihood of more than 80% of the people. Agriculture also remains the fundamental instrument for sustainable development and poverty reduction in the country, a fact repeatedly echoed in the World Development Report. This would remain so for the next 50 years.
It is for this reason that agriculture should take a clear and central position in any development strategy including money plans.
The agriculture sector has continuously been neglected despite many policy documents and speeches by politicians, emphasising that agriculture is the most important economic sub-sector. These claims have never been translated to actual implementation in terms of investments and budgetary support.
Budgets over the years have not reflected on the importance of agriculture. The sector remains neglected.
We have maintained and will continue to emphasise on the importance of investing in agriculture.
The government and our major development partners have continued to consider and recognised other sectors as enablers of growth and development and have left agriculture out.
This is unfortunate because, for any meaningful development to take place, it has to start in the rural areas, in particular the agriculture sector.
This is simply because more than 80% of our people are rural-based where the core problems of widespread poverty and inequality, rapid population growth and rising unemployment are direct effects of stagnant and declining economic activities.
We agree other sectors deserve investments but they must directly compliment agriculture. What is the use of establishing a rural health centre when people it intends to serve have no money to pay for medicine?
Agriculture development is the key to rural development and improvement of livelihoods. It will not only deliver outcomes directly related to increased agricultural productivity but also contributes to the necessary outcomes in the other sectors such as health, education, infrastructure and law and order.
It is, therefore, essential for us all to view agriculture as a central sector in the country delivering long-term outcomes and impacts to all other sectors while other sectors can contribute with short-term outcomes to agriculture development.
We urge the national government and donor agencies to reconsider their priorities and include agriculture on equal footing with other prioritised sectors.
In reality, PNG should be investing about K400 million a year into agriculture for the nation to avail its true potential to boost economic growth and development. This is as per the international recommended rate, 10% of agricultural GDP, when agriculture in PNG contributes an estimated 37% (K4 billion) of total GDP.
The current level of public investment is about K190 million (including allocations of NADP funds to districts), which is less than 5% of the agricultural GDP. Where and how NADP fund is used in the district also needs explanations.
Public inve­­stment in research and development is equally disappointing. The current annual public investment in agricultural research is K30 million, which is 0.75% of agricultural GDP while the ideal rate is 2.0% (K80 million).
This explains the current gap and highlights the huge scope for increasing both public and private sector investments in agricultural research and innovations in PNG.
The government has a duty to the smallholders and the subsistence sector through public sector investment. There is growing concern that PNG is not anywhere near placing agriculture as the centre of development agenda. Resource developments such as the LNG project and others coming on stream are good opportunities for us to take affirmative actions.
However, the current trend is not helping this cause and not a good signal as reflected in our money plans over the years and change of strategies by donors. We need to seriously reconsider our stand if PNG is to be prosperous.