O’Neill switches focus to urban-biased development

Focus, Normal

The National, Wednesday October 23rd, 2013

 IN his message to the nation on the nation’s 38th anniversary of independence last month, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill focussed on his plan to promote an urban-biased development path, writes CHARLES YALA

 THIS is the first time a PNG Prime Minister, or for that matter, a national leader has articulated this idea the way Peter O’Neill has done.

I would like to focus on the following issues – What is unique about this plan? Is the timing right?  Is this achievable?



The idea of an urban, cities or town-focussed development is unique in PNG because rural-focussed development was ingrained into the subconsciousness of our early leaders. 

The Constitutional Planning Committee, for instance, was heavily influenced by this line of thinking. 

Consequently, the country’s national leadership, development planning system, and the political and administrative, and service delivery mechanism was informed and shaped by the rural-biased development paradigm. 

In its simplest form, the rural -focussed development paradigm states that people should remain in their rural settings and the State will deliver goods and services at their doorsteps.  

As we all know, after 38 years, this development paradigm has failed to deliver the promised goods and services to the rural sector. 

In reality, basic infrastructure, education, health, and law and order are deteriorating right across the rural sector.  

One of the major factors behind this dismal outcome is the high transaction costs associated with the delivery of basic goods and services to the rural sector. 

Transaction costs are exorbitant because of the geographical nature of this beautiful country.  

For instance, the administrator of Gulf Province, told a forum organised by the National Research Institute last month, that 30%  of the province’s health and education annual budgets were consumed by transaction costs. 

A specific example he gave was that, it costs K40,000 to mobilise a payment of K25,000.

This example from one province alone speaks volumes about the impact of transaction costs on service delivery.

Prime Minister O’Neill’s urban/city/growth centres-focussed development paradigm should be seen as a deliberate move to exploit economies of scale, thereby lowering the unit cost of delivering basic goods and services.  

In its simplest form, land surrounding an existing and, or proposed township development area is mobilised and developed thereby creating job and income generating opportunities. 

This allows for concentrated investment into the core economic infrastructure upon which basic social services such as health, education or law and order can be provided. 

People will migrate voluntarily into the urban centres, get employed or start businesses, and enjoy access to the basic social services therein.



The country has been independent for 38 years. 

Problems of service delivery to the rural areas however, remains, and getting worse.  

The provisions of basic services in law and order, health, and education have not improved over the four decades of independence. 

In reality, we know that, economic activities struggle to start, expand and grow within the rural sector.

Urban migration is creating new challenges such as poor development of urban centres and increased encroachment of customary-owned land by migrants. 

The latter is marginalising the traditional landowners and the generation of their primary resource, land. 

Time has now come for a rethink and the timing of Prime Minister O’Neill’s plan is right.  

As the world’s most famous scientist, Albert Einstein, once said, insanity is doing the same and expecting a different outcome.  

It is therefore time to start doing something different, using the experiences of the last 38 years. 

The prime minister’s strategy is doing exactly that, pushing urban biased development and expecting marked improvements in jobs, incomes, and basic social services, thereby laying the foundation for a development paradigm which will change the development status-quo. 



The question of whether this is achievable or not lies within the following domain: political will, technical support, institutional capacity, financial resources, and general stakeholder buy-into this policy. 

The prime minister, who is now secure to rule for the entire half of this Parliament, having secured changes to the Constitutional provisions dealing with motions of no confidence against a prime minister, gives him the time to articulate this plan to the general public, establish the necessary institutional frameworks to drive its implementation, and avail the necessary funding.

One good news for the prime minister’s initiative is that, it will utilise existing initiatives. 

The first of this initiative is the National Land Development Programme (NLDP) which has since 2005 made significant headways into establishing a Voluntary Customary Land Registration system, streamlined Land Court system, and initiatives to improve the corruption-riddled and dysfunctional land administration system which is producing duplicate as well as fraudulent titles, as in the case of the SABL titles within the Department of Lands and Physical Panning.

The NLDP is all about mobilising customary land for development through the empowerment of customary landowners. The NLDP imperatives will therefore enable land currently held under customary ownership for the creation and, or expansion of urban centres through customary land empowerment. 

The PNG Development Strategic Plan 2010-2030 and the Medium Term Development Plan 2010/2015 emphasise the development of   economic corridors. 

The idea is to coordinate the development of major infrastructure to promote the development of growth centres where income generating and job opportunities are created.

The petroleum resource area corridor was the first of the 10 corrdors to be developed. 

To date, less progress has been made with regards to the actual implementation of the economic corridors. 

The prime minister’s initiative not only complements but will provide the impetuous for the successful implementation of the economic corridors. 

At the same time, the economic corridors will provide the basis for the implementation of the prime minister’s initiative. 

The Constitutional and Law Reform Commission has been granted a terms of reference by the Justice Minister and Attorney-General to undertake a review of the outdated Cities Act and the Physical Planning Act. Progress on this is at an advanced stage. The new legal framework will provide the legal basis for developing urban centres throughout the country.

The land research programme, based at the National Research Institute, which is funded by the Government through the NLDP, is undertaking a review of the Port Moresby and Lae City plans, with the view to improve town planning and urban development in the country. 

The findings from this review will form the development of a viable legal framework and the development of towns and cities within PNG. 

The analysis in this commentary demonstrates that the prime minister’s initiative is long overdue, the timing is right and there are sufficient initiatives to provide the basis for its   implementation. 

This marks a sensible shift in the way the country’s development paradigm change from rural to urban focussed. This is radical, good timing, and achievable. 

The question remains: Will the emphasis on urban biased development lead to improved development outcomes? I will bet my money on it.


  • Dr Charles Yala is the acting director of the National Research Institute, and chairman of the National Land Development Advisory Group.