[SCMP Column] PNG's digital challenge

March 05, 2018

Papua New Guinea’s year of chairmanship of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group began in earnest last week, with the arrival in Port Moresby of hundreds of jet-lagged APEC officials and business representatives (me included) for the first cluster of Senior Official Meetings.

Management of the APEC process, leading up to the meeting of APEC’s leaders in November, will stretch what is arguably the poorest and least developed APEC member to its limits. But it also offers local officials and businesses the opportunity to alter international perceptions of their tiny, remote country. And, just as important, it gives visiting APEC officials a rare opportunity to see the world’s challenges through wholly new and uncomfortable lenses.

By almost any measure you take, PNG is an exotic outlier. I still remember as a five year old at primary school in England using cowrie shells from PNG as counters in my earliest arithmetic lessons, unaware that the country used seashells as currency until 1933. I also remember as a social anthropology student at university studying in awe the works of Bronislaw Malinowski on the culture of the Trobriand Islanders, not realising then that the Trobriand Islands were part of the PNG, and never dreaming I would one day come visiting.

The World Bank ranks it among the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of around US$17bn – ranked 115th worldwide. With a population of barely 8m dispersed across impenetrable jungle-covered mountain ranges spanning an area almost that of Spain, it boasts 852 known languages. Only English and “Tok Pisin”, which we in the west call Pidgin English, allow its people to talk to each other. There is no road link between Port Moresby, its capital, with PNG’s second largest city of Lae. In fact Port Moresby has no road links to any town of substance. All contact – and all trade – is by air onto one of the country’s 580 mostly unpaved airstrips.

While ExxonMobil and a few other global oil and gas companies have begun the process of transforming the economic foundations of the country with the export of LNG, still 87 per cent of PNG’s people work in subsistence agriculture, and 28 per cent of its GDP is accounted for by agriculture – a scale of dependence on the farm sector matched only in Asia by Myanmar (with 38 per cent of GDP in agriculture, and 70 per cent of the workforce). Over 49 per cent of the population live below the World Bank’s miserable poverty line, and over 80 per cent are illiterate.

Not surprisingly, barely 20 per cent of the population have access to the internet, which is (from personal experience) appallingly slow, and very expensive.

All the more surprise, therefore, that our first APEC discussions plunged right in at the deep end – exploring the digital revolution, future jobs, and what officials should best do to guide APEC economies into the wrenching transitions ahead in the world of work. PNG must surely be among the world’s least likely places in which to debate the digital revolution. Discussions on Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things seem centuries away when even basic internet has a very fragile toehold.

But there was value in putting on fresh lenses, and seeing how the digital revolution may in due course be playing out in APEC’s most farm-dependent economy. With its tiny population dispersed over impenetrable jungle-clad mountains, the task of digital infrastructure-building takes on a new and very basic meaning.

Commitments to build coding into the primary school curriculum may be firm, but with just 20,000 kids “pushing out” from the school system annually, and an average of just 5-6,000 new jobs a year, the task of embedding digital skills into PNG’s many small enterprises looks unusually challenging.

But undaunted officials are looking at potentially significant initiatives not just in export-oriented agriculture like coffee, cocoa, palm oil, sweet potatoes and copra, but in the country’s many remote subsistence-farming communities. The arrival of basic internet services could be transformative for women in particular, who are at present almost universally outside the formal labour market.

The establishment of even the most basic internet infrastructure and basic mobile phones can link villagers to markets, and to a better knowledge of market prices. Information sharing on weather, or extension services and resource centres to advise on productivity improvements, or micro-finance services, have the prospect of delivering important gains. No need to worry for now over the threat of Artificial Intelligence and Robots in the workplace, or the introduction of the Internet of Things in the home.

Look through the eyes of a government official, or a subsistence coffee-grower, in Lae, and it becomes clear why they can get excited about the transformative potential of the digital revolution, however modest it is compared with the revolutions we are seeing in South Korea or Mainland China.

It is true that regional studies show quite alarmingly how our digital leader economies are seeing growth rates significantly stronger than all laggards, resulting in widening inequality across our region, but that is at present not something that should be allowed to distract hard-pressed PNG officials and businesses from capturing what they can. At these levels of poverty and exclusion, it is the absolute progress that counts, however modest – not the progress relative to Korea or Japan or Singapore.

And evidence of that absolute progress is clear to see in Port Moresby. The handsome Stanley Hotel that is home to most of the APEC meetings opened its doors just 18 months ago, and offers first-world hotel conveniences that are surprisingly comfortable, and a real contrast to my first visits to Port Moresby three years ago.

High rise buildings are popping up around lots of well-built dual carriageways. Mobile phones are now everywhere, and while charges are high and bandwidth is too poor for exotic uses like video streaming, it seems digital infrastructure is beginning to make a difference.

Perhaps the big question in a country so profoundly embedded in cultures and customs that stretch back over centuries is how fiercely the PNG’s local communities want cherished customs to be protected as the digital revolution sweeps over us, and what digital price they will have to pay. That is a challenge for another day.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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