I used to have the opinion that PNG’s middle class offered a solution to the growing gulf between the haves and have nots in PNG. Lately that view has been changing. Despite the activism of some and the Facebook conversations only a handful meet together and/or take action on issues. Are we seeing the rise of the predatory elite and people/prey who do not seem to mind being exploited?
There seem to be an inequality of ideas or aspirations. The inequality of wealth and access to education and decision making bodies also create rather contrasting levels of aspirations.
Recently whilst on holiday in Madang, I met a friend who grew up in the “block” in Lae. The “blocks” are settlements quite different from the Kaugere type settlements in Port Moresby in that they are literally made up of holders of blocks of land. In Lae, the block holders live along what is referred to as the “miles” region that stretches out of Lae along the Highlands highway.
On Christmas Eve my friend and I were discussing the existence of class in PNG. As the conversation rolled on I noticed whilst we both talked about Upper, Middle, Working and Lower classes we had totally different definitions. My world view was framed within Marxist political economy whilst my friend held an original “block” definition of class. So I paused our conversation and asked him to explain the class system of the block.
The Block definition of Class
Before I discuss class, let me first discuss the broad groups of inhabitants of Lae. According to my friend, there are four broad groups of people, the village people, settlement people, block people and the street people. The village people are the traditional inhabitants of Lae. The settlement people live in squalid conditions in makeshift homes and are generally poor. The block people are settlers who hold a block of land. And finally the street people, the people who live in residential areas of Lae with proper street names, thus the term street people.
The people on the block are categorized into three classes of people; High, Middle and Low.
A high class person on the block is usually a Landlord with assets such as a trade store or rental properties. A middle class person is someone who had a job whether as a Bank teller, teacher or shop assistant. A low class person is someone who is unemployed or self-employed.
There seems to be a unique block economy that is highly specialized. For example, a grass cutter walks round the block looking for work whilst a firewood seller collects wood and dry brush to sell to other people on the block. There are women who specialize in selling peanuts, ice blocks, and offal from the butchery (cow intestines are a delicacy at the block).
Jobs and status
With such a social construct, getting a job as a shop assistant or other low wage job, is a leap of class from Low to Middle. I have always wondered why some people take up low wage jobs, remain poor and do not seek to earn a living wage. One sees these workers in Port Moresby for instance, looking dusty, worn out and exploited yet turning up to work only because it gives them status in their community. A lot of these poor workers are also poorly educated or illiterate.
There are many workers in PNG who do not earn a living wage and as such cannot be said to be working to sustain their livelihoods but to maintain their egos. For them, getting a job has more to do with status than survival because their pay alone couldn’t possibly sustain them.
Absence of social conscience
Contrasting this exploited class of people, are PNG’s predatory elite and their equally predatory offspring growing obese on the fatness of other people’s natural resources. Papua New Guinea’s predatory elite do not have a social conscience. But to be fair to them, neither do a lot of other ordinary Papua New Guineans. For many, the social conscience does not extend beyond one’s social circle thus the prevailing conditions of rampant corruption at the top and insecurity and social ills at the bottom.
Unregulated and Exploitative
The conditions that allow for Papua New Guineans to exploit fellow citizens reflect the inherent nature of the current poorly regulated and exploitive model of development. Time and time again various commentators and organizations highlight the governance issues that give rise to the problems. The conventional wisdom is that if the governance issues are sorted out things will improve.
However, governance issues are merely a part of the broader question of how to ensure distributive justice in the benefits of economic development. (Even the United States and the rest of the world face the same issue of distributive justice). Of course lazy people should not receive the same as hard working people. But the reality in PNG is that hard working shop assistants, construction and cannery workers however are not receiving a fair share of the economic pie. On the other hand, lazy corrupt people with connections are exploiting workers, cutting deals for kickbacks and taking a lion’s share of the wealth of the nation.
We live in a heterogeneous country with various complex social structures that shape people’s world view. At a night club, I once heard a drunk adolescent boasting about her dad’s ill-gotten gains. Meanwhile at a block in Lae, someone whom one might consider to be disenfranchised is actually quite happy because of the status that comes with having a low wage job.
How does one pitch issues to people who do not share one’s view of the world? Many of us tend to impose our realities on others without taking into consideration how others see the world. We try to make them see what we see without understanding the different lenses that shape and colour their perceptions.
As a writer, I certainly recognize the mammoth task of framing PNG’s developmental challenges through the experiences of its 7.5 or possibly 11 million people.