A rare known fact about Papua New Guinea (PNG) is that, over the past ten years, it has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Thanks largely to a protracted mining boom and what appears to be a decent future in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), optimism surrounds PNG’s economic outlook. Less appealing, however, are the social characteristics of this economic success. In transiting economic change, it is not difficult to see that PNG’s social fabric is under tremendous strain. High crime rates, the transition from communally-held to privately-owned land, a breakdown of the traditional family or ‘wantok’ kinship structure, and ongoing tribal violence, all point to a disruptive near-term future for PNG.
Alongside the prevalence of vice and health problems arising from an increased intake in processed food, many Papua New Guineans—and the NGOs that claim to speak on their behalf—are left questioning the benefits of economic growth. In attempting to untangle these concerns, one must first acknowledge that these signs of stress are common—even in well-developed economies. PNG’s contortive characteristics, when taken broadly, are part of a social ‘unravelling’ that nations endure while transiting economic change. Francis Fukuyama, for example, in The Great Disruption, has shown that economic leaps forward, like the United States from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, have come part-in-parcel with higher incidences of family breakdown, a scepticism of institutions, a decline in trust and an increase in crime. Brink Lindsey, in The Age of Abundance, records similar trends, adding welfare dependency, abortion, single parenthood and divorce, as symptoms of the social malaise that arrives with economic success.
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