Is Papua New Guinea Really Poor?

In my office we regularly share articles relating to our line of work to read and discuss with each other. Recently, one of my colleagues circulated an interesting piece about the Millennium Development Goals.

The number one Millennium Development Goal is to End Poverty in all its forms everywhere.

This made me think about what poverty actually is. How does one determine poverty? How is poverty present in my country, Papua New Guinea?

Is PNG really poor?

To begin I looked up the word ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ in the dictionary. Poverty is described as ‘the condition where people’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter are not being met.’ The word poor is defined as ‘having very little money; not having enough money for basic needs.’

But is poverty only determined by not having enough money for basic needs? I don’t think so.

Through the lens of the international community, PNG is seen as a poor nation, but also as rich but corrupt. Rich in the sense of resources such as oil, gas and gold, rich for its fertile land that produces fresh food. Corrupt, as not much of the resource industry profits and government funds are feeding back to the people of PNG. According to UNDP 40% of PNG’s population still lives below the poverty line.

However, through the eyes of local villagers, Papua New Guinea is not regarded as poor. They have the land to hunt, gather, cultivate and harvest produce. Through their gardens they are able to feed their family and still have surplus to share with relatives or sell at the markets. This allows them to earn enough income to buy clothing or other necessary utensils and tools. Most villagers have survived living this way for many years.

So far so good you’d think – unfortunately not.

The majority of communities in rural and remote PNG are lacking access to basic healthcare services and education as well as electricity to power their homes. There are a limited number of recognised schools and teachers to educate children and an inadequate number of health care facilities. The lack of these basic services means most communities have a low literacy rate, little to no knowledge about diseases or disease prevention, and have limited skills to get formal employment.

People are suffering.

Imagine having to walk for a day to see a doctor, for many people in rural communities this is a reality. Sick women, or children, having to walk for more than a day to see a community health worker (not a doctor), who might not have adequate medical supplies or drugs to treat the patient, is a persistent experience. Or envisage no school or teacher in your community. Research shows that 600,000 children are currently not going to school in Papua New Guinea because of the lack of teachers or simply for not having a functioning classroom in their village and walking to the next village is not an option.

Furthermore, in search of better lifestyles many Papua New Guineans move from their rural village to the promise of regional cities. Often they are unskilled and have difficulty finding employment. They end up frustrated and displaced, realising that life in cities is tough especially without money to survive. They become a burden to relatives and the government, and all too often end up living on the street.

Poverty is not only related to basic needs such as food, clothes and shelter but is related to quality of life, having access to education and healthcare and with the prospect to earn a living.

I see a great future for my country, but only if the PNG government, businesses and NGOs work together with communities to improve the livelihoods and services for the people.

By Petra Arifeae, Programs Manager, KTF