What will Biden’s Summit mean for the Indo-Pacific?

A Papua New Guinean perspective.

Serena Sasingian,
The Voice.

In 2018, Papua New Guinea made the bold move to host the APEC Summit. This was despite many dissenters thinking the country was not ready to take on such a monumental task. We were thrust onto the world scene under the leadership of the former Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill. 

Most people associate the 2018 APEC Summit in PNG with the government’s Maserati purchasing saga.  I remember it as the time when the tension between China and America was on public display. 

It started on the 16th of November 2018. I stood in my kitchen while President Xi Jinping and the Chinese delegation flew into Port Moresby ahead of the Summit. This was the first time a Chinese president had visited PNG. President Xi Jinping had organised to arrive early to meet with Pacific leaders.  His delegation dispersed to spend time cutting ribbons for infrastructure projects all over the country. Major centres, like Port Moresby, were decked out in Chinese flags.

At the same time we discovered that former US President Donald Trump would not attend the Summit. He would instead send his deputy, Mike Pence. Vice President Pence chose to stay in a neighbouring country for the Summit, and commute daily on Air Force Two. This symbolism wasn’t lost on us. 

When the time came for President Xi to deliver his address at the CEO Summit, which was televised live around the country, we were listening. I was surprised to find his words resonated with the struggles countries like mine faced in relation to compliance in a heavily regulated trade environment that made it very difficult for us to participate in the global economy. He presented a vision of cooperation that was inclusive. He was – dare I say it – inspiring.

I recall this memory not because I am particularly enamoured with one country over another. I am staunchly pro-democracy.  But if Western countries are serious about affecting change, as the Summit for Democracy implies, the only way to do this is to truly understand the history, the systems, the values and culture that has shaped a country.  Otherwise, words on democracy promotion become tokenistic and an external agenda driven by Western countries and not driven from within.  

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo wrote in her book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It, that a stagnant economy is dangerous to civil liberty. Mayo argues it has long been held that democracy is a prerequisite of economic growth. However, recent economic growth in a few authoritarian countries like China, compared to the experiences of a sustained democracy with below-the-average economic growth in underdeveloped countries, including PNG, demonstrate that democracy alone is not the magic sauce to development.  

As countries across the Indo-Pacific struggle with growing youth populations, stagnant economies brought on by Covid 19 and other social stresses, donors can capitalise on the momentum of the Summit for Democracy. Here are a few reflections on things to consider when focusing on democracy promotion within the region. 

Firstly, there must be space for it to emerge internally and for the institutions of the state to be shaped by the context rather than by copy and paste models of foreign institutions. Constitutional awareness is so important because it is the binding thread that brings together a nation and provides the basis for the legitimate adaption of values that may be different from the dominant culture of a nation. The Western world cherishes ideals of human rights and popular rule by government because it was born out of their struggles to free themselves from the shackles of kingdoms and monarchs. Therefore, donors should invest discreetly in people and organisations working towards accountable, transparent, and effective democratic leadership. 

Education will be fundamental, and if we get it right, transformational.

Improving a country’s education system is fundamental if we want thriving democracies. The Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment report 2015 gave students’ proficiency level in literacy in PNG at 14.33 percent compared to the Pacific Regional rate of 17.78 percent. We have ahead of us a generation of children growing up unable to read and write. This means they are unable to dream and to demand more. The need for an educated nation transcends all other debates when it comes to the question of how best to generate democratic governance. Donors can muster all tools at their disposal to integrate regional learning opportunities, provide access to great thinking, and help my country invest in the educational foundations it needs. That’s the most practical investment in good governance over the long term.  

Finally and most importantly, democratic participation will be bolstered by continued and sustained economic growth. Private equity has played a big role in empowering private companies to invest in countries that might otherwise be too risky. In 2007, against a backdrop of donors talking about democratic governance, running workshops, and providing technical assistance, Digicel arrived in PNG. The telecommunications company, owned by Irish businessman Denis O’Brien, took the risk to digitally connect Papua New Guineans. At that time, only 100,000 people owned a mobile phone, which was approximately 1 percent of the population. Fourteen years on with an investment of over USD1billion, 2.8 million people (approximately 38 percent of the population) now have access to mobile devices, of which Digicel has 80 percent coverage. Through digital connectivity our isolated villages, towns, and people now have access to the digital world to debate and share ideas on development. Similar to other countries, social media continues to play an important role in informing public debate and has had an impact on the political lifespan of governments. No amount of democracy training would have given people this level of access, but foreign direct investment was a critical enabler.

Democratic participation will be bolstered by economic empowerment

So what next? As donors grapple with how best to strengthen democratic participation, and hopefully help drive that from within, the intrinsic link with economic empowerment can’t be ignored. I go back to my opening story on the APEC Summit and China. Unlike Western nations who are talking about democracy, China is investing much-needed capital in countries like mine. If we’re serious about boosting transparency, governance, and accountability, engaging in a donor-recipient relationship is only one element of this. We’re also searching for economic growth and investment solutions to transform the daily lives of our people –  through their businesses the middle class is able to buy houses and cheaper goods, thereby improving their quality of life. If we are serious about democracy promotion this means fundamentally changing the way we conduct trade and create jobs.

But there’s a bigger piece to this puzzle. We’re in a moment of global ideology shifts, of governance shifts, of technology shifts, of economic shifts. As partners, we’re fundamentally misunderstanding the complexities in front of us if we think that one, two, or even three-year program cycles will be sufficient in driving true change. A ten, 15, or even 20-year cycle could instead help us close the holes in the governance container, create lasting change, and see much more value for money. 

A final word

First up, invest in independent civic spaces that allow for debates to occur but support it from within. Don’t put your logos all over it. This will allow for people to feel it is a locally led agenda. Secondly, think outside the aid program box to foster a thriving economy. Finally, invest in enterprises and initiatives that catalyse an education revolution – a literate and educated population forms the basis for a thriving and strong democracy.

Serena Sasingian is co-founder of The Voice, PNG. 

...if western countries are serious about affecting change, as the Democracy Summit implies, the only way to do this is to truly understand the history, the systems, the values and culture that has shaped the current state of a country.

The need for an educated nation transcends all other debates when it comes to the question of how best to generate democratic governance.