Yat Paol is a farmer on Madang’s North Coast. He runs a grassroots NGO aimed at linking up rural PNG communities who are using their land to build small businesses. We interviewed Mr Paol about what basic government services would enable smallholders to transform PNG’s fortunes.
What do you think Government’s role in supporting the so-called ‘informal’ economy should be?
There are two levels that come to mind. Number one, extension services. Meaning that after PNG’s colonial era, Independence and immediately after that, for some 10 years or so we used to have extension offices. Technical offices like agriculture, other technical assistance that people would need back home, like for small business, marketing and all that. That is non-existent today, particularly in the countryside, in the rural areas where for technical support like that people are cut off from road links and access to even to the districts and provincial centres. They’re left out. So that’s one area if government really does what government is for, they should be looking into. That’s number one.
And the second area is facilitating trade for produce that people are already doing: the business part of it. Like infrastructure, the road, bridges and ports that will enable farmers, producers to have access to markets. And if government does what governments are for, again, making that happen so market access can be there for the people out in the areas, the producers.
And maybe a third one that comes to mind is policies. They should be people-friendly, producer-friendly. Making it possible for people to get through with this kind of business, because there’s a lot of bureaucracy and procedures to be followed for businesses. And if something is done along that line for people who are, particularly people out in the rural areas, isolated areas, that will help them also.
With regards to extension services, you said they stopped around 20 years ago, roughly in the 1990s. What’s your opinion about why that was stopped?
Maybe the government took it for granted structures like with the provincial and local level government, the law on local and provincial government being passed in parliament and being implemented, the government may have taken for granted that with that structure in place such services will be catered for. Which is not the case. The structure is in place but it’s not working. Not serving. In policy, more power’s given to the district and local level governments; but for implementation, for the working of it, the machinery’s not working out there. Like, say for example Josephstaal. There’s no government presence there. The only outside presence there is the Catholic priest there. And that’s the only leadership from the outside and there is no government presence whatsoever there.
Josephstaal is just one case and you can multiply that. And even in Madang, you have just maybe one or two, maybe three out of all the LLGs that is working above average. It creates dsillusionment, and frustration. That also builds up that law and order problem. People out of frustration just … they just get out of control, because of frustration.
To me, it seems like these days the government’s focus is all about mining, commercial fishing, commercial logging – big industry. Is that part of the reason why they’ve turned their attention away from local-level, small rural extension services like that?
I think that’s a big part of it because of the government’s national focus on big business, export focussed business, extractive industry – big industry, big business. I think that’s very much part of the reason. They see that as they way to go, that model of development. As opposed to, what the people can do and in fact what they’re already doing. It’s happening there. But just a little bit of facilitation there is needed : infrastructure, extension services, that’s it. But with that system not working in many, maybe most LLGs, that’s frustrating. It’s not helping people.
Is there also a lack of training and skills development available to people?
In the local areas, there is no such availability of technical assistance or skills transfer. There are some NGOs, certain agencies, certain groups that are doing that, but it’s not from the government, and it’s not organised. Like in the past when there were extension services, it was structured, it was organised. Now it’s ad hoc: whoever succeeds in linking up with some agency, some NGO or outside group that can be able to provide some training, they’re lucky.
Those services are very important. One thing is, cash is something new. It’s not part of our culture. We were trading before, our ancestors used to trade. Cash as such is something new, and management, the handling of money, this is something new. There’s a lot of that training needs to be, for management of that cash, for business in this cash economy. In certain areas, some of our areas, cash-flow is good, but the management of the cash is a big, big problem, still. Small cash is alright, it’s manageable, as it grows we need management skills on how to manage the cash. So one area where the government can support is technical, it’s more capacity building.
What about basic things like road access?
That’s a big one, infrastructure to facilitate business. There’s a lot of produce, marketing opportunities out there but there is no market access because of infrastructure situation, that’s not helping.
I thought that is the government’s job. I find it hard to imagine why people stand up, run for political office – I thought they are the policy makers, the decision makers to make sure the common fund there, the country’s budget , caters for its people, six plus million people in the country. And that is not happening. So that is also my question, why is not happening? So now, my tendency now, with VICo, is people do what they can do. Rather than working with outside agencies which gets into bureaucracy and all that. When you initiate it yourself you know how it works – you make it work, actually. So, to make do with what’s at their disposal, because government is not working. Not doing what government is for.