‘Prosperity’ must recognise the People’s Economy

Posted: June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

By Victoria Stead

What does it mean to talk of a ‘prosperous future’ for Pacific? By what criteria do we measure ‘prosperity’?

At what level do we measure it: at the level of the state, the village, or the household?

Do we approach prosperity in economic terms, and if so in what relation do we position the ‘formal’ economy and its indicators—Gross Domestic Product, cash income, levels of waged employment—in relation to the self-employed economy: subsistence livelihoods, markets and customary practices of exchange?

What space is there in our imaginings of prosperity for considerations of culture, kastam, ecology, and the social structures of clan and community?

A vision of prosperity for PNG must recognise the continuing vitality and centrality of the ‘informal’ sector – the People’s Economy – in the livelihoods of Pacific peoples.

Notions of prosperity are too often uncritically economistic in their framing, valorising economic criteria of value above others, prioritising the formal sector above the informal, and taking no account of the tensions between customary and modern ways of being and belonging.

In too many large-scale development projects in the Pacific, there is a chronic failure to take the informal economy into account. Places and communities are read through a language of deficit, inscribed as places and people without jobs, without cash, without industry and investment, without ‘development’, rather than as place and people with different livelihoods and forms of work, different systems of exchange, cultures, ways of being.

In PNG’s Medium Term Development Plan 2011-2015, MP Paul Tiensten writes that “since independence we have dreamt of prosperity”.

However, in PNG policy and development discourses, “prosperity” has been overwhelmingly tied to material wealth, measured through criteria that privilege the formal sector, cash economy, and the nation-state as its central units of analysis. ‘Prosperity’ is linked to GDP and government revenue, as well as to the prosperity (and profits) of investors and corporations.

This does not take account of the fact that PNG’s massive informal sector sustains the livelihoods of most of the population.

In Madang, the cash income available from waged employment at the RD Tuna cannery is often far lower than that which can be made from marketing of garden produce, fish, or betelnut. The fortnightly pay of cannery workers is roughly equivalent to what women can earn in 3-5 days of roadside marketing (Havice and Reed, 2012: 426).

A 2008 survey of women roadside traders in Madang similarly found that the People’s Economy was generally much more lucrative than ‘formal’ sector employment, with 82 % of the sellers surveyed earning more than 50 kina a week, higher than the then-minimum weekly wage of K37.20 (Anderson 2008). Fifty percent were earning over K100 a week. Even taking into account the 2011 increase in the minimum wage, which brought it to just over K100 a week, informal marketing remains a more profitable option for many, especially given that the hours required are generally shorter and more flexible.

Within PNG tinned fish is—along with rice, tea, sugar and corned beef—a staple store-bought food item, particularly within urban areas, and within rural communities where local trade-stores supplement gardens as sources of food. Store-bought foodstuffs have become, in many ways, markers of status and “development”, and are considered more “prestigious” than locally-produced food.

Sitting on the veranda of a house in Rempi, in May of 2010, an old man who is the leader of the Bomase clan talked about the new staples of tinned fish, rice, and flour. He said: “our fathers only depended on the garden, not this food which comes from other countries and other places”.

He was not speaking here of the “backwardness” of his ancestors, who ate garden food instead of store-bought goods … but rather lamenting a loss of self-sufficiency and cultural autonomy.

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