Opinion: National Development Forums provide critical listening post


Paul Barker, the Director of the Institute of National Affairs, reviews the 2013 National Development Forum, which this year focused on revitalising services at the district level across Papua New Guinea.

Delegates gather for the National Development Forum at PNG's Parliament Haus.

Delegates gather for the National Development Forum at PNG’s Parliament Haus. Credit: INA/Paul Barker

One of the positive things that has come out of the series of national forums this year has been the active commitment and attendance of the Minister for National Planning, Charles Abel, who gave a very strong address on 12 critical reform areas that the National Government needs to focus upon, including tackling capacity issues, lack of accountability and rationalisation of the public sector.

Four regional forums were held this year—in Vanimo, Popondetta, Rabaul and Mt Hagen. The forums are organised by the Consultative Implementation and Monitoring Council (CIMC), an independent organisation that brings together civil society, private sector and government partners to develop policy, and influence and monitor government decision making.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Leo Dion, also gave a powerful address on the need for co-operation, consultation and public participation and the need for support for government in achieving its objectives this year, deemed the ‘year of implementation’. During the forum, there was some suggestion that, as capacity is so weak, particularly in the districts [the local administrative areas below provincial level], it would be more realistic for this year to be the year of ‘preparation for implementation’ because we’re already well into the year and funds are only just being released.

Ending largesse

The Institute of National Affairs' Paul Barker

The Institute of National Affairs’ Paul Barker

Planning Minister Charles Abel emphasised removing responsibility for handling major project funds and implementation from central agencies, including the Planning Department.

‘Gone are the days of the Planning Department picking and choosing between different projects, with associated abuses.’

Instead, central agencies would concentrate on developing and coordinating broader sectoral plans and monitoring their impact in meeting the Government’s policy objectives. Gone are the days of the Planning Department picking and choosing between different projects, with associated abuses, whilst the duplication of functions (for example, between Planning, Provincial Affairs and PLLSMA and Office of Rural Development) is to be ironed out, with suitable rationalisation or right-sizing.

Story continues after advertisment...

Abuse of funds

Abel highlighted the major abuse of public funds and the wasted opportunities in the past from mechanisms like the National Agricultural Development Plan, where half a billion kina was selectively dished out from what became effectively a slush fund.

It was, he said, a big missed opportunity to actually strengthen the capacity and the service delivery in the provinces in agriculture, but similar waste is occurring in other fields.

There was general consensus in the forums that governance and accountability were very weak, and these need to be strengthened substantially.

‘The districts have been allowed to deteriorate for such a long time, that to actually attract staff to return there will be tough …’

This includes restoring clear standards and discipline, whether in the education system or the public service and, for example, greater support and authority for the watchdogs, including the Auditor-General, to oversee and apply penalties.

There is also a need to empower local communities for social auditing, if the country and those communities are going to get some bangs for the country’s increased buck.

District development

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Dion speakers, flanked by National Planning Minister Charles Abel (right).

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Dion addresses the forum, flanked by National Planning Minister Charles Abel (right).

The Minister for National Planning was also strong on getting national government staff out into the districts, but that’s easier said than done.

The districts have been allowed to deteriorate for such a long time that attracting staff there will be tough, unless one builds up local infrastructure and services incrementally—schools, health services, telecommunications—and then maintains them.

The private sector has played a big part of late in making it more attractive to live in the regions, by installing mobile phone towers to improve telecommunications (which has led to mobile banking, for example), but there will need to be a fair amount of effort by the National Government to make it attractive for public sector workers to move out there.

There was much discussion about strengthening collaboration with the churches and civil society, which provide many of the essential services, especially in more remote areas.

But the Government also needs to partner with the private sector to open up opportunities for businesses and local services in the districts.

Land reforms

Participants also discussed overdue reforms to land administration to empower customary landowners to safeguard and utilise their own land, through the establishment of properly constituted incorporated land groups.

It was agreed that it will take considerable work to rectify accumulated land abuses, which can’t be achieved overnight, but the first steps have been taken.

There was emphasise on the need to safeguard and develop the agriculture sector to provide broad-based opportunities, but that this would require investment in suitable transport and marketing infrastructure.

‘ … with crime and safety remaining one of the major impediments to sustainable economic and social development in the country. Active community support, the forums agreed, was critical.’

Government would also need to address pests and diseases which threatened livelihoods and the whole local economy, and be prepared to provide targeted inputs, including freight subsidies and properly coordinated, rather than simply local ad hoc price support. This is particularly important now, when prices have fallen severely, jeopardising rural livelihoods.

Local empowerment

On the theme of local empowerment, the forum gave emphasis to PNG honouring its national and international obligations, and enabling its entire population to use their skills and talents to actively contribute and participate in the country’s development. This means including women and youth, the so-called disabled, where necessary providing suitable social protection to the most marginalised.

Active measures to strengthen the capacity, performance and accountability of the police and other institutions to address crime and violence were discussed and proposed, with crime and safety remaining one of the major impediments to sustainable economic and social development in the country. Active community support, the forums agreed, was critical.

Leave a Reply