A Governing Body for NGOs in Papua New Guinea: A Response to the Minister for Mining’s Proposal
In a recent undated press release the honourable Minister for Mining proposed that the Papua New Guinea government set up a governing body to ensure that all Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) operating in the country work within a set policy framework(1). The Minister hopes that this governing body will be able to develop a policy framework which ensures NGOs work in partnership with the government when addressing issues of concern. This, the Minister believes, will allow the Somare government to weed out NGOs that act for themselves and not the ordinary Papua New Guineans they claim to represent.
Having recently spent a month in Papua New Guinea meeting and interviewing respondents from a number of national NGOs, this author feels acutely equipped to raise a number of significant concerns that necessarily arise from the Ministers press release.(2)
First of all, let us be exact about what NGOs involved in the natural resource sector do, rather than allowing ourselves to be misled by the Ministers alarmist statements (e.g. He [Minister for Mining] said that NGOs operating the country by virtue of their status are almost at liberty to say and instigate anything they feel duty bound to do…).
NGOs firstly attempt to inform landowners about their constitutional and legislative rights. In so doing NGOs are not imposing their agenda, rather they are responding to an evidence based need in rural communities, where it has indeed become apparent from authoritative reports, academic studies and legal cases that forestry and mining operators do not always comply with Papua New Guineas laws and customs. Secondly, when landowning communities have identified illegalities or unconscionable activities, NGOs provide a conduit through which communities can seek legal or social redress. Thirdly, when governments pass laws or develop policies that impinge upon the communitys right to control their resources, NGOs use their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and movement in an effort to democratically mobilise the people to dissent.
Therefore, to suggest as the Minister does that NGOs act for themselves and not ordinary Papua New Guineans entirely misrepresents the role which NGOs play in Papua New Guineas social fabric. NGOs provide a conduit through which rural communities in particular can voice their concerns on a national stage.
The interests and concerns driving these actions are the communities own. To imply as the Minister does that landowning communities are simply NGO puppets, defies Papua New Guineas rich history where landowning communities have proven themselves quite capable of expressing and defending their own interests without being prompted by external bodies. The Minister therefore assumes far too much about the capacity of NGOs and not enough about the people he claims to represent.
However, perhaps the Ministers most incredible and disingenuous claim is that we have to protect our national interest from unscrupulous foreign elements who would be using unsuspecting National NGOs for their own gain. Given that national NGOs consist of experienced lawyers, scientists and community organisers, it is fanciful to imagine that they could be easily played by foreigners. Moreover, who are these foreign elements and what agenda are they pursuing?
Quantitatively speaking we know that the foreign elements with the largest stake in Papua New Guineas political economy are a number of major multi-national corporations and the Australian and Chinese governments. The former organisations invest in Papua New Guinea in order to accumulate a substantial return for their mostly foreign shareholders, while the latter operate in Papua New Guinea in order to advance their own national interests. Yet it would appear the major partner of these powerful self-interested foreign elements is in fact the Papua New Guinea state and not NGOs a partnership we might add that has produced such disastrous outcomes as Ok Tedi and the Bougainville crisis where approximately ten thousand ordinary Papua New Guineans were killed by the state with the assistance of Bougainville Copper Limited.(3)
Civil society in Papua New Guinea, of which NGOs are a vital part, must be protected so that it can play an essential role in upholding the constitution and the law.(4) This role is made more essential by the fact that the Ombudsman Commission, the Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee and numerous public inquires have collected compelling data which suggests that the state in Papua New Guinea is compromised by a significant criminal element, who employ public office to enrich themselves and service foreign and national companies seeking unfettered access to Papua New Guineas natural resources. If NGOs were to work in partnership with a government such as this as the honourable Mining Minister suggests, it would mean their forced complicity in the states corrupt and violence practices. This would not seem a most illogical way of advancing democracy and development in Papua New Guinea.
(1) Available at: http://ramumine.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/mining-minister-calls-for-a-governing-body-for-ngos.pdf
(2) The author met with Act Now, the Bismarck Ramu Group, the Centre for Environmental Research and Development, the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights, the Eco-Forestry Forum, the Environmental Law Centre, the Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs, Transparency International PNG.
(3) Copies of the authors publications on the Bougainville conflict may be obtained upon request, firstname.lastname@example.org
(4) Indeed in attempting to regulate civil society through a governing body the Minister is threatening to undermine what is an essential layer of democracy. Civil society compliments and strengthens the electoral process by providing an essential space where ideas can be shared, movements organised and dissent expressed in relative autonomy from the organs of the state.
The views expressed in this paper are that of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of ISCI’s Directors, Friends, Fellows or Researchers.
*Dr Lasslett is an ISCI fellow and a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster.