Australia urged to support civil society and reform in PNG
Australia's senate has been told that the government's aid programme in Papua New Guinea enables rather than remedies state fraud and market distortions in PNG. This is according to the International State Crime Initiative which says Australia's aid goals in Papua New Guinea would be better served if it provided more support to civil society efforts to foster reforms within the PNG state.
Australia's senate has been told the country's aid goals in Papua New Guinea would be better served if it provided more support to civil society efforts to foster reforms within the PNG state.
The recommendation came in a submission by the International State Crime Initiative at an Australian senate inquiry into the aid programme in PNG.
The Initiative's Dr Kristian Lasslett says theoretically, Canberra's approach to aid in PNG focuses on making the country more business-friendly to create a trickle-down effect that leads to improved human development outcomes.
But he told Johnny Blades this approach is incongruent with the reality on the ground, where business has too much liberty.
KRISTIAN LASSLETT: And when I say liberty, they have the liberty to set prices that are far in excess of the market value of the services and goods they provide; they have the liberty to misappropriate landowner assets, state assets with impunity; they have the liberty to develop completely superfluous projects that are often inflated in price and are not delivered at all or to inadequate quality; they have the liberty, as we've seen in the legal industry, to steal state funds en masse. And they also have the liberty to abuse human rights. And this is all done with impunity. And until these issues are dealt with, enabling the private sector further will only contribute to these problems that are distorting the function of markets in Papua New Guinea, that are undermining human rights, creating poor governance and thus leading to development goals not being reached.
JOHNNY BLADES: Would any of these liberties be afforded if it weren't for collusion by officialdom, by the state?
KL: Yeah, I mean, that's absolutely a vital point. It's not just the private sector, and ti would be unfair to put all the burden on them. It's conspiracy between the public and private sector. What we're seeing is that government departments - the Lands department is one notable example - they have been systematically corrupt for decades and that has led to the haemorrhaging of customary land, through Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) and the haemorrhaging of state land. To put that in perspective, when you're having state land being serially mismanaged, you're losing prime urban real estate that could be used to advance urban development policies. And this is being done with collusion of state officials and the senior politicians are involved. And there are many examples that are not private, that are on the public record, in commissions of inquiry, in national court cases where we see the most senior politicians are involved in the misappropriation and misallocation of resources in breach of the criminal code and or the Public Finance Management Act.
JB: Some of these things have been going on for a long time, how is it do you think that the managers of Australia's aid programme haven't caught on to that, or they must be aware?
KL: Yeah I think obviously part of the challenge is that it's a very a sensitive issue. The Australian government doesn't want to come out and openly be in opposition to the Papua New Guinea government which would lead to a fracturing of the bilateral relationship. but I think it's also reflective of where they've invested. And overwhelmingly, when there has been investment in devices to encounter corruption, it's been overwhelmingly line positions within government. And actually, what we argue in our submission, much greater attention needs to be turned to civil society. So the Australian government, through its aid programme, could invest a lot more in NGOs in PNG. I mean you have people like (NGO) Act Now, who have been doing fantastic work for years on the smell of an oily rag, and they've been the one people keeping attention on the SABL inquiry, the Finance Department inquiry, but you know they've only got a couple of people. You could have investment in independent media organisations, because at the moment they don't have media, fourth estate keeping government and business to account. So you need to foster an independent media through investing in an innovative, journalist-led community news outlets. You also need to invest in people who can do research into this and can systematically expose from the very deep problems underlying these cultures of corruption. And by that I mean the universities in PNG which are serially under-funded. And what we see with Australian aid, most Australian aid, when invested into research, goes to Australian universities, goes to Australian high education institutes, it doesn't go to PNG institutions who desperately need that money. So what you need to do is get a really vibrant civil society who can back these reformist agencies to create a coalition, a public/civil society coalition. And hopefully also that coalition can include private sector actors who want to see reforms, and use that collective power to put the pressure on the PNG state. Because unless there is a coalition that has weight of numbers to counter the wealth and power within the PNG state, nothing will happen.
JB: Do you feel that the sort of co-dependency in the bilateral relationship, particularly where Canberra needs PNG to keep hosting the asylum seeker camp, is getting in the way of any kind of reform of how the aid programme would work?
KL: Yeah, I mean it's a difficult question to know how much the sensitive issues like the detention camps for refugees, how much this informs the policy. But actually, I think another problem is, I don't think there's an awareness in Canberra at the moment of just how deep the problem is. There's an abstract awareness. I think if you went to anyone in Canberra, they'd be aware that corruption is a big issue in PNG. But I would bet you a hundred dollars that they couldn't identify the very precise, concrete ways this affects development outcomes on a day to day basis, the way it affects procurement, the way it affects the way in which infrastructure is developed, the way in which health services are provided, the way in which education is done. Corruption impedes and undermines all those in very specific ways, and I just don't think that knowledge is actually informing policy in Australia. And I think were policy makers being given this knowledge, then I think there is a possibility for aid policy to be recallibrated, because I think there is a desire amongst the Australian politicians on all sides of the fence to see better outcomes. I don't think anyone wants to see the same condition going on. I just think that there is not an awareness of where the solution lies.
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