Following the recent political turmoil in Papua New Guinea, the new prime minister James Marape signaled a shift in its foreign policy away from traditional partners to re-engage Southeast Asia. How can ASEAN help PNG develop its national capacity, such as in disaster preparedness?
By Alistair D. B. Cook and Foo Yen Ne*
After months of upheaval in Papua New Guinean politics, with MPs moving into opposing camps and switching allegiances, the new prime minister James Marape was voted into office on 30 May 2019.
The next day, he held a press conference where he outlined a shift in
foreign policy away from ‘traditional partners and reliance on
traditional partners’. He identified Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and
Philippines as countries to further develop ties with, particularly in
trade and investment.
New Focus & Responding to Disasters
The prime minister outlined that the government would identify a
development focus for each province – natural resources, industry or
tourism – as a way to redistribute development across the country and
diversify the economy, amid a spate of natural disasters.
It will be important to ensure sustainable development in the long
term and improve disaster preparedness and response capacity in the
immediate term given the exposure of Papua New Guinea to natural hazards
and the recent detrimental effects this has had on its population.
On 25 February 2018, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Southern
Highlands province. One major aftershock registered at 6.2 Magnitude on
the Richter scale and many more continued to strike through to March.
The earthquakes and the aftershocks affected over half a million people
across the Enga, Gulf, Southern Highlands and Western provinces.
These affected provinces are rural and sparsely populated, making
communications and access to the affected communities a challenge.
Access to markets, public services and incoming humanitarian aid were
severely compromised because of damaged roads and landslides. This was
compounded by poor infrastructure and low investment in the province.
Disasters Amid Capacity Gaps
In many cases, aid to affected populations could only be delivered
using light aircraft. The ramifications of these operational challenges
are multiplied when overlaid with the political and security environment
of the Highlands – home to government protests last year and ongoing
Recent natural disasters, particularly the 2018 Highlands
Earthquakes, cast a spotlight on the capacity of different levels of
government in Papua New Guinea. Capacity in this sense usually means
access to adequate funding, the size of the institution and the level of
During our recent fieldwork in the country, we were told that there
were many capacity gaps. These included the lack of government-endorsed
needs assessment tools; a small pool of in-country disaster risk
reduction experts; a reliance on outside help [but at the expense of an
understanding of Papua New Guinea’s complex operating environment]; a
lack of strategic assets such as aircrafts and trucks; and a lack of
standard operating procedures for receiving and redistributing
international relief materials.
It is clear there are multiple avenues for cooperation with others to build national capacity.
Living Next Door to ASEAN
Papua New Guinea’s relationship with Southeast Asia was established
after its independence from Australia in 1975. PNG shares a land border
with Indonesia’s West Papua province, and was mooted as a candidate for
ASEAN membership in the 1980s.
Although this did not happen, PNG was given ASEAN observer status in
1976 and special observer status in 1981. It became the first non-ASEAN
member state to accede to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and is
a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Outside the ASEAN platform, PNG
and ASEAN Member States have strong bilateral trade relations.
In 2017, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand were
among PNG’s top 10 trading partners according to IMF data while the PNG
economy hosts a growing Southeast Asia-origin migrant labour force and
Further, students from PNG have increasingly travelled to countries
like the Philippines and Indonesia as cheaper alternatives to Australia
for education, taking advantage of English-language instruction and
While PNG-Southeast Asia relations are growing, they have generally
been limited to the areas of trade and investment. Opportunities for
other forms of engagement between PNG and ASEAN Member States have been
under-explored. It is time to consider disaster management as an
opportunity for collaboration between ASEAN and PNG as a way to
contribute to building national capacity.
This is logical given ASEAN’s ambitions of becoming a global disaster
management leader through its AHA Centre, as well as PNG’s proximity to
and longstanding relations with ASEAN Member States.
Balancing Vision with Tangible Policy
Asking the PNG government to invest more heavily in disaster
management as a state function can seem counterproductive when the
government has so many competing development priorities.
However, there does need to be a rethinking of how Papua New Guinea
can institutionalise and operationalise disaster management in a way
that maximises the impact of its capacity and resources. This is crucial
to prepare for and respond to the next disaster. This would likely be
folded into a sustainable development programme as a way to achieve a
diversified economy throughout the country.
External partners have an important role to play in supporting PNG to
improve its disaster management and inform its development strategy,
two sides of the same coin. With PNG’s exposure and vulnerability to
disasters, it is logical to enhance partnerships with countries that
have developed strong capabilities for disaster management. ASEAN, its
Member States and the AHA Centre’s capabilities in this respect and
their potential contribution are great candidates.
A PNG-ASEAN collaboration in disaster management would serve to
expand the relationship between PNG and ASEAN Member States more
holistically. It would fulfil the complementary objectives of enhancing
PNG’s disaster resilience. At the same time, this can help develop
ASEAN’s AHA Centre as a global disaster management leader as laid out in
its ASEAN Vision 2025 on Disaster Management.
A PNG-ASEAN collaboration provides a means towards fulfilling the
ASEAN Declaration on One ASEAN, One Response − responding to disasters
as one, both inside and outside the region. ASEAN should share its
knowledge and experience with a close neighbour while turning the ASEAN
vision 2025 on disaster management into a reality.
*Alistair D. B. Cook is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programme, NTS Centre at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Yen Ne Foo was a Senior Analyst at NTS Centre, RSIS.
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