Interview: Brenda Tohiana

To what extent does the ABG have to rely on the national government of Papua New Guinea?

BRENDA TOHIANA: The financial arrangements between the two governments are covered under the Organic Law on Peace-Building in Bougainville, as well as in the Bougainville Peace Agreement. There are a number of grants and budget allocations as part of the arrangement, including a conditional grant, which was to comprise a yearly allocation of PGK15m ($5m) to the ABG government. The amount was supposed to be adjusted upward on a yearly basis, following consumer price index increases. Unfortunately, the disbursement of these funds only started in 2012, and consumer prices never affected the allocation, which continues to be a contentious issue between the two governments at the moment. Furthermore, due to the economic downturn affecting the PNG economy, in 2015 the government reduced the conditional grant from PGK15m ($5m) to PGK12m ($4.1m), though this is a constitutional matter.

As for the unconditional component, also known as the Special Intervention Fund, the PNG government had originally committed PGK100m ($34.1m) a year for five years to restore Bougainville’s infrastructure, which was badly damaged during the years of conflict. However, for the same reasons as mentioned above, this sum was reduced to PGK40m ($13.7m) in 2015, following the national government’s supplementary budget. Not a single kina of this restoration grant reached Bougainville in 2015 and has not done so in 2016 either.

How have public services, particularly in rural areas, been affected by the current situation?

TOHIANA: I would say the situation is critical, as this state of affairs is greatly affecting the capacity of Bougainville to function and operate properly when it comes to service delivery, right down to the district level. Some of these grants are not released in Bougainville, but are retained in Port Moresby for teachers’ salaries and the police department, among other things. But if we look at the situation the Bougainville health centres are in – which, in the absence of proper hospitals in the territory, should provide our population with medical assistance – many have been downgraded to aid posts in terms of their capacity to deliver services.

To give you an example, at the Arawa’s health centre, which serves all of Central and South Bougainville, there is only one registered nurse on duty at night. As a result, they have stopped taking inpatients and do not provide night services any more unless there is a clear emergency; this is totally unacceptable by international standards. They often do not even have fuel to run the ambulances. In a normal situation, we would look to our internal revenues in order to find additional funds to address these issues, but because of the cuts we have been experiencing over the last few years, it is impossible to work out a solution. The same is happening at the church-run health centres in South Bougainville, so it is clear we are facing significant hardship. In addition, Bougainville only has one referral hospital – located in Buka town.

It may sound like a strong statement, but in a way this situation is taking us back to the post-conflict period, or even worse, to the year of the blockade on Buka island, where thousands were denied assistance, causing many to perish. We are talking about main Bougainville here, not to mention what is happening in the atolls in the extreme south-west that are also part of the autonomous region, where access to health services is practically non-existent given the distance from the mainland. To a villager there, it would make no sense that public servants continue to be remunerated for their work, when they lack any basic support from the administration, and it would be very difficult for me to explain why this is the case. At the same time, more effort has to be made when it comes to tax collection, as many firms do not pay taxes to the Internal Revenue Commission, a situation that needs to be addressed immediately, as we will have to brace for tougher times.