Poverty in PNG. What did they measure?


According to Oxfam Australia, poverty has increased in PNG since the mid-1990s. It now stands at 37%. In other words, just over 2.6 million people out of a population of 7.5 million total population of PNG live on less than USD $1.25 per day.

To get a picture of the 2.6 million poor people in PNG – combine the population of the five highland provinces plus Morobe Province.

At today’s exchange rate, being poor in PNG means, having less than K3 at the end of any given day.

Indeed, in an urban setting, a K3 cannot buy the standard daily town meal of rice and tinned fish. A K3 is only enough for an unhealthy lunch of one deep fried flour ball and one boiled sausage. Similarly, at the market, a K3 can only buy a small heap of kaukau or potato for just one meal.

In contrast, in the rural area, a K3 has more value at the market but dramatically decreases at the trade store. At the market, a K3 can buy kaukau, greens and a piece of fruit or a coconut. However, a K3 in the village is not enough to get anything, except a packet of biscuit or two. A rural family wishing to eat both rice and fish need to have at least a US$7 or K20.

The K3 has different value at different places. Economists may explain this as the impact of supply and demand. The value of a K3 is high in the rural market because the demand for vegetables is low where supply is high. Demand for store bought goods however, is high in the rural areas. The price hike is probably because of freight charges as well as the fact that imported stuff including food are luxury items in rural area.

A luxury item is not needed for survival but is acquired for various reasons including to make life more pleasant or as a status symbol. Luxury goods are typically more costly and are often acquired by people who have more money than an average person.

What is money when people maintain their livelihood from the environment at no charge? This reason makes the current definition of poverty irrelevant in a place where cash is irrelevant.  The question now is, who are the 37% poor people in PNG?  What did they measure to come up with that number?

Definitely, the poor people are not the politicians and their cronies, who make up 1% of the population. It definitely is not the 10% working class who get paid enough to eat more than just rice and tinned fish until the next pay day. Because of the reasons above, the 75% rural people are out. The only group remaining are the vagabonds – the village runaways who have left the village for a life in town.

The absence of good data makes it hard to verify the Oxfam data if indeed, vagabonds when rounded up can fill up the highlands region and spill into Morobe province. Current assumption elsewhere put vagabonds at around 15% of the total population. Where then, is the other 22% of poor people as reported by Oxfam Australia?

Making lists and ranking people according to an irrelevant target can affect the psyche of human beings.  When people are made to feel helpless, they stop looking at ways to help themselves. They become dependent, feel impoverished, and disillusioned.

Change your mind and change your life. That is all it requires for us to take our life back from dependency. Since time immemorial, people have depended on their environment to maintain a livelihood. The instinct for turning soil into food is not lost to even the urbanites. Go to any house with a yard and you will see banana, or cassava or even fruit trees incorporated into the landscape. Go to any settlement and you will see people tending any piece of soil they can find.

Therefore, poverty in the PNG context is not about money. Living in poverty in PNG is when households go to sleep hungry because they are not willing to turn soil into food.  Poverty in PNG is when people forsake food security in the village for town where cash is king.

The use of a single currency as the only legal tender has disadvantaged the rural people. If the government cannot support economic activities in rural areas for people to earn money, then it must allow rural people to barter using wealth from their environment. They can barter for food and especially medicine using wealth from the forest when they have no cash to buy those select items.



  1. John Morris said,

    March 1, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Before money was introduced in the late 19th century the people lived quite healthy lives based on village produced food and barter.

    • March 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm

      Indeed. All was not perfect but people had a system that worked. The west and their culture is being imposed on the world. You conform or sink – this ultimatum is putting pressure on a lot of indigenous culture. Time for indigenous leaders to grow a backbone and not swallow every idea shoved down their throats, but to discriminate and only choose the good ones while valuing existing ‘kastam’ that works.

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