Opinion: The Institute of National Affairs reaches a milestone as the voice of reason in Papua New Guinea

The Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs celebrates 40 years this year as the country’s leading ‘think tank’, research and public policy advisory service for government and business. Executive Director, Paul Barker, reflects on its purpose, history and achievements.

Ranu House in Port Moresby in 1911—INA's first premises Source: INA

Ranu House in Port Moresby in 1911—the Institute of National Affair’s first premises. Source: INA

Finding ways to engage with policy makers and the wider public has been a central theme of the Institute of National Affairs (INA). The challenge has been to make dry policy research accessible to these audiences.

‘The country is finding it difficult to translate non-renewable wealth into sustainable economic and social development.’

Over the years, the INA has influenced public policy, at times providing almost a lone voice in stimulating wider economic policy discussion.

Many of the country’s core challenges remain, particularly PNG’s principal development paradox. PNG is a relatively resource-rich nation but the country finds it difficult to translate non-renewable wealth into sustainable economic and social development.

Unrealistic expectations

The extractive industries have helped fuel unrealistic expectations and encouraged burgeoning, often unproductive, expenditure. Sometimes this has resulted in conflict and discord.

‘The PNG economy should be performing much better.’

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These industries can distort the economy against viable and more sustainable industries, which could generate broader-based employment and other opportunities.

The Institute of National Affairs' Paul Barker

The Institute of National Affairs’ Paul Barker

It is a scenario that is not unique to PNG. Nor can the country’s problems be wholly ascribed to resource wealth. It reflects weak political and institutional systems, and a lack of adequate policy and accountability mechanisms.

Self-sufficiency

The PNG economy should be performing much better.

Public investment and benefits, including quality human resource investment, should have spread much wider through society.

The country nevertheless functions, partly thanks to the self-sufficiency of households engaged in subsistence, and other economic and social activities. Input from churches and community service organisations is important and some businesses provide many public goods, especially in rural areas.

Various factors are restraining PNG , preventing it from exploiting broader-based opportunities. Minor, even extensive, policy adjustments—such as those proposed through the recent tax review—could help address many issues.

‘Key law and order features are already in place in PNG, but they must be applied meaningfully.’

As highlighted in the ‘PNG at 40’ Symposium in March, 2016, much depends on a core commitment to law and order and good governance. Application in these areas has been deficient, particularly in the public sector, and it seems to be getting weaker.

Law and order

IPA Haus, the INA's premises since 2010 Source: INA

IPA Haus, the INA’s premises since 2010 Source: INA

Key law and order features are already in place in PNG, but they must be applied meaningfully and not by-passed: whether it is the annual Budget, procurement processes, or the administration of land and resource laws.

Unfortunately, some preferred policy options run counter to powerful vested interests within, and outside, government.

With 2017 as an election year, progress may be undermined unless the public, individually and collectively, is ready to forego exchanging their vote for opportunistic rewards.

Pioneering spirit

The business community in PNG has changed over time. Many long-established companies, including several founding members of the INA, have moved on, or been absorbed.

Perhaps the pioneering spirit of the locally-owned or based companies—which foster the business environment and contribute to a successful society—has weakened. Many businesses are focusing exclusively on their corporate activities, and are minimising their wider engagement.

‘It is a role of the INA to act in a politically impartial manner.’

There are concerns about interference or malpractice by certain regulatory authorities, exclusive deals, a lack of competitive conditions and substandard public goods.

Many firms are anxious about speaking out, especially when licenses, permits, land or work permits might be forfeited.

The INA’s function is to provide evidence derived from its research on economic, social, governance and political issues. The areas looked at include anti-competitive licensing, tendering and land allocation.

It is a role of the INA to act in a politically impartial manner, to raise issues and public discussion and to facilitate policy feedback. The INA can highlight concerns when individuals or businesses may feel reticent to speak out.

Core functions

The INA has consistently urged Government to focus on core functions.

This includes providing public goods, effectively performing regulatory functions and not being induced to divert scarce public funds to commercial activities that would be better performed by a well-regulated and competitive private sector.

The INA encourages government and the Central Bank to focus on ensuring suitable, consistent, stable and level conditions for diversified investment. This means lowering the risks and other costs of doing business. Things like law and order, well-maintained highways and well-focused regulatory conditions.

The INA has aimed over the past four decades to help foster a fair, equitable and dynamic society. It will continue to do so, successfully, in the future decades.

Paul Barker is the Executive Director of the PNG Institute of National Affairs.

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