Lessons on hyper-diversity from the people of Papua New Guinea

PNG is reeling from the after-effects of a volcanic eruption, urban riots, inter-tribal violence, fuel shortages, foreign exchange problems and an impending secession.  (AFP)
PNG is reeling from the after-effects of a volcanic eruption, urban riots, inter-tribal violence, fuel shortages, foreign exchange problems and an impending secession. (AFP)

Summary

  • Its challenge is to leapfrog its hundreds of small societies into one big Papua New Guinean one.

There are so many crises raging around the world that you can ask why I have chosen to bring the one in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to your attention this fortnight. So let me tell you the reason upfront: It is an example of why hyper-diverse societies can end up in deep trouble unless they develop the necessary social capital needed to govern themselves.

The post-colonial state was carved out of an arbitrary chunk of the Melanesian archipelago (the region comprising the easternmost stretches of Indonesia and islands northeast of Australia). Its claim to fame is that it has the most diverse population on the planet, with over 850 languages and thousands of bands and tribes, in a population of over 10 million living in a country the size of Maharashtra and Gujarat combined.

PNG is reeling from the after-effects of a volcanic eruption, urban riots, inter-tribal violence, fuel shortages, foreign exchange problems, an impending secession and ongoing parliamentary machinations to replace the prime minister. Its police force, which went on strike last month over a wage dispute, is too small to pacify warring tribes. Few criminals are arrested and incarceration rates are low, allowing them to operate with impunity. Geopolitically, it is in a tight spot in the contest between the West and China.

You could say that PNG is caught in a polycrisis of its own, but underlying the visible symptoms are fundamental problems. The Independent State of Papua New Guinea is essentially a hyper-diverse tribal society wrapped in a Westminster style political system. A people who did not have social structure bigger than a village before European colonization 150 years ago are now citizens of a modern state. The basic social unit is a wantok (“one talk"), a small community that speaks the same language. Band and tribe loyalties are strong. People expect leaders to act in the interests of their social group, so MPs are more concerned about favourable redistribution than national governance. Foreign missionaries might have converted people to Christianity, but old tribal identities remain. After independence from Australia in 1975, Papua New Guineans have tried to construct a national identity, but it remains a work in progress. The wantok, tribe and extended family remain powerful in the face of monotheistic religion, nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Earlier, I have argued that diverse societies suffer from a problem of under-cooperation resulting in under-provision of public goods. PNG is so diverse that for centuries its society could not organize itself into tribal confederations, leave alone kingdoms and bureaucratic states. Village communities were so geographically isolated, culturally distinct and economically self-sufficient that they couldn’t coalesce and form a bigger entity. Inter-tribal violence, basic commerce and inter-marriage would maintain a rudimentary order, and everyone just lived with that. In 1975, a liberal democratic state was thrust on a people few of whom could imagine who or what a ‘Papua New Guinean’ was. Things have changed since, but the people of PNG have not been able to build social capital fast enough to ensure that their government can maintain political order, rule of law and deliver basic public goods.

Hyperdiversity results in weak social capital, making effective cooperation difficult at any meaningful scale, thus resulting in poor societal outcomes. Hence PNG’s low human development indicators, high crime and corruption.

But there is high social capital within wantoks, helping its members procure jobs, favours and other forms of support. These are a little like Indian jaatis, kinship groups with high trust and economic ties. But unlike jaatis, wantoks neither have an ideological basis nor any presumptive hierarchy.

Indian society has some problems in common with PNG. Electoral politics is organized around identity groups, not on different approaches to governance. There are a large number of political parties and opportunistic leaders who jump ship frequently. Governments rule with less than half the total votes. Federalism is impaired because MPs are expected to dispense local favours. There are conflicts over language. It is hard to make simple, universally applicable laws.

So why is hyper-diverse India able to do better? We have a stronger sense of common civilization, geography and community. Our religious, ethnic and national identities cut across caste lines. In other words, Indians have a better developed sense of higher-level imagined communities. In a sociological sense, all these higher-level identities are a good thing, even if which should have political primacy is contested. To my mind, a pluralist Indianness is the highest-level identity around which we can create the broadest stock of social capital, which can then achieve the greatest cooperation.

PNG’s challenge then is to leapfrog its hundreds of small societies into one big Papua New Guinean one. It will not be easy. As much as foreign countries can provide economic and technical assistance, the task of turning a hyper-diverse society into a pluralistic nation belongs to Papua New Guineans. And, as we in India can attest, it is a never-ending one.

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