Melanesian wealth and PNG big men

LONG-established concepts of wealth and influence are being turned on their heads as cash replaces traditional social capital. Ex-kiap Paul Oates explains.
Melanesian wealth and PNG big men Melanesian wealth and PNG big men Melanesian wealth and PNG big men Melanesian wealth and PNG big men Melanesian wealth and PNG big men

Traditional Melanesian PNG custom in areas where no common currency existed required the accumulation of wealth and influence to be a "notional" practice.

In a climate where wealth was measured primarily in perishable foodstuffs, these assets could not be stored for any length of time. It's not hard to imagine that sharing resources was very important in small community groups where the survival of the group depended on community resources.

In order to acquire perceived wealth however, a PNG leader had to give his wealth away. Only by giving away his perishable wealth could the giver acquire perceived, ongoing status. This "wealth" or status was based on the obligation imposed on the recipient of the gift by the giver. It is what is known in anthropological terms as reciprocity.

The PNG "big men" or leaders traditionally created and maintained their wealth by reciprocity - the type of wealth known as social capital to differentiate it from monetary capital.

When the concept of Melanesian wealth or social capital is imposed on a society that now defines its wealth in monetary terms, a conflict of interest can easily occur.

The traditional concept of a PNG big man requires him to achieve recognition and prestige by distributing his wealth. When this wealth is associated with money however, rather than in perishable food or ornaments, the paradigm drastically changes.

Wealth in monetary terms can now be kept in unseen bank accounts and can also be transferred overseas and away from the view of those who have contributed to its accumulation. Wealth can also be acquired from external sources without the knowledge of supporters.

Obviously, those in a position of authority have more opportunity of dispensing favours and influence using cash handouts. There are reports that some members of the PNG Parliament walk around their electorates with cheque books for government bank accounts openly carried in their hip pockets. This clearly demonstrates their ability to dispense wealth on their own terms and at their own whim.

Dispensing favours in order to "buy" votes at election times is of course not restricted to PNG. In some Western countries it's called pork barrelling.

If someone uses the Melanesian concept of wealth distribution to subsequently acquire personal political advantage using their own money, that's surely a personal matter. However if a person uses government funds and resources to gain personal advantage, that's surely dishonest and illegal.

If there is a perception that public funds have been used in the past to assist political ambitions in PNG, then why hasn't this activity been uncovered and stopped?

That is the nub of the problem.

A past governor-general even led a public protest march against corruption, yet nothing appears to have happened as a result.

Given the five year period between PNG general elections, voters have very little opportunity to hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions.

In addition, the ability to use or misuse government funds to initiate obstructive legal action has in the past clouded any clear picture of responsibility to the point where it dips below the radar. In the words of Gladstone, justice delayed is justice denied.

Misuse of Parliamentary procedure and excessive legal arguments have often removed any possibility that the public can determine a clear picture of exactly what has occurred and who might be responsible.

Even when illegal activities are uncovered, regionalism and local loyalties may be called on to overlook the problem for the greater good. Lack of good communications and general education levels in rural areas also helps exacerbate a lack of accountability.

The only solution in the short term would appear to be a legally binding charter of ethical behaviour that all prospective members of the next parliament would be required to sign before they can stand for election or re-election in 2012.

Would the current members of the PNG Parliament be prepared to pass this law before the upcoming general elections?

Now there's a question.

Published in the February 2012 PNG Report magazine

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