I’ve been travelling to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for a decade. I’ve been to the Highlands, up to New Ireland and New Britain, to Port Moresby many times, and I’ve even been all the way to the beautiful island of Mussau.
This is what I’ve noticed over the decade: PNG is developing at a rapid pace. And my observation is backed up by statistics.
But we should remember this: the greatest wealth is to live in a society that is free from fear.
According to the World Bank, PNG was one of the fastest growing economies during the past decade. And, according to the Asian Development Bank, the country experienced a blistering 9 per cent GDP growth in 2015.1
This is, on the face of it, very good news. Economic growth means funds for new infrastructure: schools, hospitals, transportation hubs and industries.
Or at least it can.
But it doesn’t have to.
“The love of money is the root of all evil,” we’re told in the Bible (1 Timothy 6:10), and there is a real danger that the love of money will prevent PNG from following a path of sustainable development that benefits a broad range of its people. There’s a danger that money will be siphoned off, enriching only a very few, while much of it goes offshore.
How do I know this is a danger?
Let me give you a cautionary tale. It’s about another nation that’s also rich in natural gas and has enormous oil reserves. It’s a nation I’ve visited and what I saw there should give everyone in PNG cause for concern. Why? Because this nation proves that no matter how much money is generated, if it isn’t managed well, if it isn’t handled honestly, poverty and violence will grow unrestrained.
This nation is Nigeria.
Estimates vary on how much oil and natural gas wealth Nigeria has received over the decades. It is, however, agreed that the revenue is measured in the trillions of dollars.
British Prime Minister David Cameron put it this way in 2013: “Last year Nigeria’s oil exports were worth almost a hundred billion dollars. That is more than the total net aid to the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. So put simply: unleashing the natural resources in these countries dwarfs anything aid can achieve, and transparency is absolutely critical to that end. So we’re going to push for more transparency on who owns companies; on who’s buying up land and for what purpose; on how governments spend their money; on how gas, oil and mining companies operate; and on who is hiding stolen assets and how we recover and return them.”2
It’s impossible to know how much of Nigeria’s oil, natural gas and other mineral wealth has been stolen. In 2012, The Economist reported that “a former senior World Banker, Oby Ezekwesili, reckons that $400 billion of Nigeria’s oil revenue has been stolen or misspent . . .” Billions of dollars from natural gas and other resources has also been pilfered.
Today Nigeria is rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt nations on earth. There is economic corruption. Political corruption. The military is reportedly corrupt. And the police force is also reported to be rife with systemic corruption.
What is the result?
A nation that is phenomenally wealthy is today a dysfunctional, violent dystopia.
According to The Economist, more than 50 per cent of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day. You may believe that $2 goes a lot further in Africa. It doesn’t. In fact, many items are actually more expensive in Nigeria than they are in Europe. According to an Expat Arrivals report, the cost of living in the two largest cities in Nigeria is higher than that of Berlin or Barcelona!3
The report goes on to describe the extreme economic disparity in Nigeria this way: “. . . in Nigeria there remains a glaring absence of a middle class. The rich are filthy rich and the poor are dismally, irrevocably poor.”4
As a result, Nigeria does very poorly on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI)—ranking all the way down at 152nd in the world. The HDI measures a broad range of population indicators, including health, education and the standard of living enjoyed by the broad population.
Remember, this is a nation that has had decades of immense resources wealth flowing into its economy.
What struck me as most tragic during my travels in Nigeria were the vast numbers of children roaming the streets of cities and towns during the day. Clearly they were not in any kind of educational program. Imagine if that stolen $400 billion of oil wealth had instead been invested in their education! Generations would have been educated and been able to turn their hands to helping others as teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers and entrepreneurs! The waste in human capital is almost immeasurable.
Corruption not only results in enormous economic disparity, it also results in pervasive insecurity. Nigeria is a dangerous place. That danger is increased by the presence of Boko Haram—an extremist insurgency that caught the world’s attention by kidnapping schoolgirls in 2014. But they have been actively creating carnage across northern Nigeria for many years.
Why haven’t they been stopped?
According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, it’s largely due to corruption5. Not only does economic disparity and injustice fuel violence but the Nigerian military and police are so corrupt they are ineffective in combatting violence when it does occur.
Of course, if we had the opportunity to be one of the officials who is personally financially benefitting from corruption, we might be tempted.
But we should remember this: the greatest wealth is to live in a society that is free from fear. What is the point of having wealth if our environment is destroyed all around us, if we fear going outside our homes, if we even live in fear within our homes? Yes, we may be able to get more stuff than other people but the cost is far too high if in the process we’ve destroyed the nation we live in. Like the fish that poos in its own pond, corrupt officials are destroying the nation that they live in.
Of course, some wealthy Nigerians leave their homeland and move to Europe or the US. No doubt their money buys them a lot of things. But there’s one thing you cannot buy with money—respect. Because of Nigeria’s reputation for corruption, these wealthy men and women are not respected around the world. People may smile to their faces but behind their backs they think, “I wonder what he did to afford that luxury car and expensive hotel . . .”
I appeal to the Adventists serving in government in PNG: Do not let PNG become the Nigeria of the Pacific.
There is an alternative model. And it’s also found on the continent of Africa. The nation’s name is Botswana.
Let’s not pretend all is well in Botswana; it isn’t. The nation faces many challenges, including a very high rate of HIV/AIDS. But it’s facing those challenges with strength and determination.
I first became aware of Botswana’s exceptional strength when I met a large group of its students who were in South Africa studying at university. They told me that their government had sponsored their studies.
How could a small, landlocked nation—roughly 70 per cent desert and which borders the economic catastrophe of Zimbabwe—afford to send its students abroad for higher education? It turns out that Botswana has found the secret to true prosperity.
If you look at Transparency International’s map of Africa, you’ll see that Botswana stands out. And for the best reason–it’s far less corrupt than all of its neighbours, including South Africa. In fact, Botswana is now ranked the 31st least corrupt nation on earth. It’s less corrupt than Spain or Israel! Less corrupt than South Korea or Italy!6
And what a difference that has made for the people of Botswana.
The CIA Fact Book puts it this way: “Through fiscal discipline and sound management, Botswana transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of $16,400 in 2013.”7
To put that in comparison, Botswana now has a GDP per capita that is close to seven times the PNG GDP per capita. It’s an impressive achievement. And a model well worth emulating.
But much more important than the size of the GDP per capita is how it’s distributed. According to the HDI, Botswana is now ranked a medium development nation. It even sits above South Africa.
Now you may, at this point, believe the connection between honesty and economic prosperity is just a fluke. After all, I’ve only given two examples. But if you look at the countries with the highest HDIs and then at the nations with the highest honesty rankings in 2013, you will notice a startling overlap. Indeed, eight of the 10 nations with the highest HDIs are also in the top 10 for honesty. And the other two fall just outside the top 10.
A prosperous, healthy, well-educated nation must be an honest nation. There is no alternative.
And just as interesting, there is an almost perfect fit for nations with a high Gender Equality Index and low corruption ranking.8 Is this because women are more honest than men? Maybe. But there’s likely to be another reason—corruption breeds abuse of all kinds. And this includes the abuse of women.
So how is PNG travelling? Is it currently on the road to becoming a success story like Botswana? Or is it on the trajectory to become another Nigeria?
In the 2014 Transparency International ranking, PNG did not do well. Indeed, it is worse than that. PNG was ranked nine places below Nigeria.9
It breaks my heart to write that.
But just in case you doubt Transparency International, consider what The Economist had to say recently: “PNG’s governments are notorious for corruption, and ever run the risk of turning the state into a fully-fledged kleptocracy.”10
It breaks my heart because I think of all the religious fervour in PNG. But if religion doesn’t translate into action what is the point? In the book of James we’re told: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27).
The truth is that in Nigeria I saw so many, many people who are destitute. Just absolutely neglected in every way. And why? Because the leaders of that nation have allowed themselves to be, as James puts it, corrupted by this world.
And this is the burden on my heart: that the very same thing is happening in PNG. And much of the wealth, opportunity and potential of that great land will be wasted because Christians will choose to be corrupted by this world rather than standing tall and being honest and honourable men and women.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. PNG could face a future like Botswana. It could leapfrog forward in development. It could be a nation that comes close to eliminating extreme poverty. Education, healthcare, infrastructure, business, respect for women and the environment can all move forward in balance and harmony.
We should all study Botswana. How did they develop a culture of honesty in a region plagued by corruption? How did disparate people groups come together to raise up everyone? How did they adopt a vision for development that goes beyond giving lip service to ideals and actually implement them?
Corruption is not, of course, just a problem in developing nations. Western banks provide off-shore accounts knowing the deposits they are benefitting from come from the exploitation of the poor, and many individuals and firms in Western nations have knowingly accepted money from corrupt leaders in exchange for everything from real estate to luxury goods. Without Western complicity, the large scale corruption that plagues so many developing nations could not occur.
Life is short. Life is unpredictable. What is certain is that all of us only have a little while to walk this earth. And after a brief appearance on this world’s stage, we shuffle off to await the Judge. Make no mistake: God will not hold us faultless if we take money that’s not ours. God will not hold us faultless if we use our position to unfairly enrich ourselves. God will not hold us faultless if we create a system designed to give power to the rich while leaving the poor powerless. Let’s remember Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, and tremble at God’s awesome rebuke.
Honesty. Humility. Humanity. These are core Christian attributes. They also happen to be the attributes necessary to build a great nation. May each of us exhibit them as we strive to build our lives and our nations upon the principles of justice, freedom, opportunity and transparency.
2. Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-minister-david-camerons-speech-to-the-world-economic-forum-in-davos
5. Philip Ikita, “Corruption in Nigeria, not just Boko Haram, is at the root of violence,” The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/jul/11/boko-haram-nigeria-violence-corruption-security
James Standish is Religious Liberty and Public Affairs director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific. This article is based on a speech he delivered to PNG politicians and community leaders in 2014.