Papua New Guinea: The Consequences of Long-Lasting Poverty


Extreme poverty in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has persisted for decades. Dating back to the bestselling, Guns, Germs and Steel in 1997, PNG stood as a central example of global inequality.  Where does PNG stand today and what is its outlook? Drawing on World Data Lab models and World Poverty Clock data, we examine PNG’s position within the broader global poverty dynamic.


PNG is currently one of some 30 countries considered severely off track to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal by 2030. It is estimated that in 2030, 4 out of 5 people living in extreme poverty will be from one of these countries. Based on our estimates, 30.2% of PNG’s population currently lives in extreme poverty. Although this percentage is set to decrease in the coming decade, we forecast that by 2030 the country will still have to cope with approximately two quarters of its population living under US$ 1.90 a day. As shown in Figure 1, PNG’s poverty levels will continue to rise until 2022, after which our estimates suggest a decline through the end of the SDG period.



Despite the small size of PNG, it has had a turbulent colonial history. Since gaining independence in 1972, most of the population continued to live in the rural regions, where local governance support remains weak and lack of essential services and resources are prevalent.


Both a consequence and driver of PNG’s poverty rate is the malnutrition of its children. Frontier Economics, estimates the cost of child malnutrition could be as high as 8.45% of the nation’s GDP, and the number continues to rise despite continuous overseas aid. 80% of the population in PNG live from subsistence agriculture and do not have access to essential nutrients. The lack of education and clean water has led to only 4% of PNG’s arable land being farmed.


Population growth is estimated to be more than 2% annually. A consistently growing population that faces food shortages and inadequate medical services, will need to overcome enormous challenges before escaping poverty. As half of the country’s population of working age bears the consequences of child stunting and malnutrition, most forms of sustainable economic growth are undermined. Although the country receives a fair amount of international aid, it is not directed towards the most necessary programs and poverty reduction initiatives.


Going forward observers and advocates argue that International aid needs to be more concise and direct and that new strategies are required to address PNG's challenges. The transition between individual poverty reduction schemes to country-wide developments place PNG in the middle of new international aid effectiveness debates -- a position which may ulimately bode well for idenitifying new mechanisms and approaches for accelerating the pace of poverty alleviation in the country.