One of the most incisive works of the prodigious but too little heralded Papua New Guinean writer Steven Winduo is a short story collection titled the “Unpainted Mask.” The book explores how the denizens of the island nation negotiate the everyday travails of modern life, using as its central motif how people wear different masks to view themselves and others. According to Winduo, it is vitally important to discern the public mask, as well as to appreciate what is underneath. Seeing one without the other is a recipe for distorted vision. Winduo’s words don’t just apply to people, but also to the state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and its institutions.

Electoral Commission workers show locals through the mock poll booth setup in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, June 2012. (Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC License 2.0)
Electoral Commission workers show locals through the mock poll booth setup in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, June 2012. (Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC License 2.0)

PNG’s administration has many masks and understanding what mask is being worn when is critical to gaining a full picture of what is occurring. This will be especially important for the United States as it embarks upon its implementation of the Global Fragility Act in the country. (Papua New Guinea is one of the five priority countries the United States is focusing on in implementing the act.)

PNG’s Rising Election Violence

One mask currently slipping fast is that of PNG’s ability to ensure fair, safe and credible elections — an ability that goes to the heart of its record as a democracy since independence in 1975. While the country’s elections are notoriously volatile, levels of insecurity and violence around its current one have dramatically increased. Commonwealth electoral observers reckon as much as half of the population have been disenfranchised.

The capacity of the state to deliver safe and reliable elections seems to wither each election cycle. The MPs elected through this system seem wholly ambivalent about issues of electoral integrity. Next to nothing was done to improve electoral systems in the five years since the last election, which was described then by Australian National University observers as “marred by widespread fraud and malpractice, and extensive vote rigging.”

Concerns about the transparency of vote-counting and other electoral processes — including the legitimacy of the electoral roll — have been key triggers for violence over the past month.

During voting, which took place from July 4-22, shots were fired by police at a polling station in Port Moresby, the nation’s capital, resulting in the death of a young woman. Counting centers at two districts in Morobe Province have been attacked. Voters in East Sepik and Hela Provinces have destroyed ballot boxes and set fire to ballot papers. In Enga Province, 18 people were killed in violence between supporters of candidates. Accounts of killings and arson are in addition to the widespread reports of electoral chaos, of money politics, of ballot boxes being “high-jacked” by candidates and their supporters, and of scrutineers being harassed and hindered in doing their jobs.

In the last week, violence spread to Port Moresby. People armed with machetes and iron bars battled just outside the country’s megamall outside the national stadium, which is close by Parliament House and the Supreme Court. This demonstrates a depleting lack of trust in the state institutions that requires serious attention. (It’s important to note that polling in many other parts of the country, including the want-away region of Bougainville has been peaceful.)

Apart from the horrifying levels of violence, one of the key points to note about some of these reports is the level of involvement of the state — and the political elite — in this violence. As the commissioner of Police himself observed, it is “sickening” that those responsible for instigating the violence in some instances — the candidates themselves — are highly educated members of the community. His is a critical point, but also elides that some of the biggest sources of insecurity can often be the country’s own security forces.

Under the State

Mob violence and tribal fighting in PNG, both during elections and at other times, are not a problem outside the state, nor some continuation of two primordial cultural traditions. Such violence is in many ways constitutive of the modern state of PNG.

The mask of democracy camouflages politically motivated violence in insidious ways. For the United States and other governments working on peacebuilding and conflict prevention, it is important to recognize that the state — and its representatives — may themselves be key causes of the country’s fragility, violence and instability.

PNG’s elaborate and bureaucratic administration is also a mask that can obscure work that is going on underneath the surface. The titles of Papua New Guinean ministries would be familiar to American eyes: Housing and Urban Development, Lands and Physical Planning, Environment and Conservation, and so on. This is the institutional form that the United States has tended to engage with, as well as other aid donors in the country — the result sometimes feel like a recipe for endless red tape, inordinate meetings and not getting much done.

The literature about the effectiveness of the capability of this bureaucratic state has been unanimously glum. Even with the hallmark tone of careful understatement and circumspection that characterises bureaucratese, a grim picture emerges. In 2018, the World Bank’s Systematic Country Diagnostic found that “assessments typically point to the presence of, inter alia, weak and fractious political party structures, shallow policy commitments, [financial management] shortcomings, misaligned personal and public incentives, clientelism, widespread rent seeking, and weaknesses in the governance structures of PNG’s resource sector.” Others aren’t published. An aid consultant was lamenting to us recently about how a governance assessment that they conducted at the behest of “a bilateral partner” was jettisoned into the bureaucratic memory hole because the results were too near the knuckle. This is not a sui generis experience.

The Relational State

Yet to write Papua New Guinea off judged by its visible bureaucratic mask alone would be a grave error. In our work in the country, we’ve seen bureaucrats and individuals — as opposed to bureaucracies — do heroic work in a wide range of areas, including land management, security provision and efforts to stem sorcery accusation-related violence. This is often unheralded and unsupported work. As the American anthropologist Alex Golub writes, “functioning institutions in Melanesia owe their success less to bureaucratic regularity than to the hard work of local actors … local actors do not fail the state, the state fails them — and it is only due to their hard work that they are able to keep it ticking over.”

A productive way to think about government in Papua New Guinea is to effectively think of its bureaucratic one as masking what exists underneath — a network of relationships we have called the “relational state.” Despite having no official physical presence, it is responsible for most of the actual governance on the ground. It consists of bureaucrats leveraging their relational ties, histories, connections and affiliations to get stuff done. It also encompasses the NGOs and faith-based organizations — many working with the most threadbare of resources — who work with bureaucrats to make things happen, in particular the provision of critical state services such as education, justice and health. In our experience we have found many of these organizations are run by strong and determined women, and that church networks also play a significant role.

Tackling Fragility

In implementing the Global Fragility Act in PNG, it will be important for the United States to look not just to PNG’s bureaucratic frontage but also underneath, where a more promising story can often be found. These are the areas where support should be concentrated.

Thus, concentrating on the bureaucratic state alone — often the comfort zone of foreign assistance programs and a more visible form of aid — would be imprudent. Instead, it may be more useful — especially for tackling fragility — to recognize the potency and power of relationships between the state and civil society. To do so would upend the traditional ways in which programs are organized — design missions, annual adviser plans, six-monthly reports, steering committees and the like. To be sure, it’s not that easy to sign an MOU with the relational state. But might that be a worthwhile price for working with something that could advance tangibly the governance and accountability objectives of many programs?

Development theorist Duncan Green provides some concrete suggestions about how such a change may be managed that strongly resonate with this suggested approach. One is building processes that systematically reduce bureaucratic hurdles as trust with local partners developed through long-term relationships increases. Another is to ensure accountability through identifying an independent, locally based intermediary who could vouch for partners and feed back to the donor if the partner is not being treated right (and vice-versa). Core funding is another strategy that could be considered; many of the organizations doing the most important work in tackling fragility challenges are operating with very limited funds.

The recent flurry of violence demonstrates the magnitude of the task of tackling fragility and building resilience in PNG. For donors such as the United States, taking Winduo’s insight about the masks that are worn by various players — including state actors — is critical. It is important to recognise a public mask for what it is, and also to engage with what’s underneath. Sometimes it reveals a less promising story, in other instances a more hopeful one. Understanding both the visible and the hidden stories produces a less distorted vision of what is actually going on.

Miranda Forsyth is a professor in the school of Regulation and Global Governance in the College of Asia & the Pacific at the Australian National University. Miranda’s first book was on Vanuatu’s justice systems; she is leading a research project on sorcery accusation related violence in Papua New Guinea.

Gordon Peake is an affiliate at the Center for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific studies at Georgetown University and the author of the forthcoming “Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation: Journeys in Bougainville.”

Together they are working on a project on the hidden world of personal relationships in government.

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