February 26, 2024The Intersectionhyperdiversitysocial capital

Hyperdiversity hardens Papua New Guinea’s challenges

Unless hyperdiverse societies develop a sense of higher-level imagined communities, they will underprovide even the most basic public goods.

Mint This is an unedited draft of my fortnightly The Intersection column for Mint.

There are so many crises raging around the world that you can ask me why I have chosen to bring the one in Papua New Guinea to your attention this fortnight. So let me tell you the reason upfront — it is an example of why hyperdiverse 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 of the easternmost stretches of Indonesia and the islands to the 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 population of over 10 million living in an area the combined size of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

This report captures some elements of the ongoing crises; and how modern weapons have made inter-tribal violence deadlier.

Papua New Guinea is currently 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 the warring tribes. Few criminals are arrested and incarceration rates are low, allowing them to operate with impunity. Geopolitically, the country finds itself in a tight spot in the contest between the West and China.

You could say that Papua New Guinea is caught in a polycrisis of its own but underlying the visible symptoms are more fundamental problems. The Independent State of Papua New Guinea is essentially a hyperdiverse tribal society wrapped in a Westminster style political system. A people that did not have social structure bigger than a village before the Europeans colonised it 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, and a substantial chunk of the population still sees itself as part of bands and tribes. People expect leaders to act in the interests of their social group, so MPs are more concerned about ensuring favourable redistribution than national governance. Foreign missionaries might have converted the population to Christianity, but the 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.

I define hyper-diversity as the level of diversity at which net cooperation becomes negative.

In earlier columns, I have argued that diverse societies suffer from the problem of under-cooperation resulting in under-provision of public goods. Papua New Guinea is so diverse that for centuries its society could not organise 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 population most of which couldn’t imagine who or what a Papua New Guinean’ was. Things have changed over the past several decades, but the people of Papua New Guinea 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 very difficult at any meaningful scale, thus resulting in very poor societal outcomes. Hence the 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. In a way, wantoks are like the jatis in Indian society. They are kinship groups, create a primary web of higher-trust social relationships and have significant economic angle. But unlike jatis, wantoks neither have an ideological basis nor any presumptive hierarchy.

I noticed that Indian society has some problems in common with Papua New Guinea. Electoral politics is organised around identity groups, not on different approaches to governance. There are large number of political parties and opportunistic leaders who jump ship frequently. Governments come to power with less than 50% of 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.

India does relatively better than PNG on many fronts. However, both can do better if they better manage their hyperdiversity problems.

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

Papua New Guinea’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 hyperdiverse 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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