As countries have begun scaling down safety measures against COVID-19, Transparency International Papua New Guinea (TI-PNG) has heightened its efforts in calling on the government to implement measures to safeguard emergency funding against misuse and misappropriation.
This call to action by TI-PNG comes after concerns were raised by Papua New Guinea Treasury Minister Ian Ling Stuckey in early April, regarding allegations that part of the initial 23 million Kina (€6 million) released by the PNG government for the COVID-19 State of Emergency had been spent on hired cars and media consultants. Although PNG Prime Minister James Marape and Police Minister Bryan Kramer have since refuted these allegations, the government has yet to provide verifiable evidence to support their statements.
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Funding and reporting
Prime Minister Marape and other ministers have said that roughly K40m (€10.4 million) has been earmarked for the COVID-19 emergency, although the exact sum of funding currently at the PNG Government’s disposal is still unverified. TI-PNG has collated public statements in the media and created a funding timeline, of both internal funds and external contributions to the COVID-19 budget in PNG.
According to reports, from mid-February to mid-April, a total of 123 million Kina (€32.6 million), has been pledged or released, including K70 million (€18.5 million) from the World Bank. However, there is no independent verifiable information or data on exactly how much funding has been spent so far or how it has been spent. This lack of information has created suspicion and undermined the public’s confidence in the government and political leaders.
This should be a concern for everyone in Papua New Guinea, a country already vulnerable to corruption and a history of impunity for corruption.
Lessons from the past
While COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis, the greatest concern for many Papua New Guineans is the country's track record of grossly mishandling government sanctioned special projects, for which project funding and management are exempted from the strict transparency and accountability protocols provided for under the PNG Public Finances Management Act, such as competitive bidding and the Integrated Finance Management System.
The most recent example is the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, which was hosted by PNG. During the event, millions of Kina are believed to have been spent, including almost K20 million (€5.2 milllion) on 40 Maserati’s, among other questionable expenses by the previous PNG government (many members of the new administration were also a part of that government). The debacle notoriously came to a head when hundreds of police, military and prison guards stormed and vandalised the PNG House of Parliament in November 2018 over unpaid allowances.
Furthermore, despite calls from TI-PNG and other PNG citizens, no financial reports have been made available to the public since. To this day, many service providers are still waiting to get paid.
Right to Information and political accountability
PNG’s track record of mishandling funds has been a serious cause for concern since the country gained independence in 1975. A recent report by TI-PNG on the availability of public information revealed that the absence of a formalised law protecting citizens' right to information has nurtured a culture of secrecy in a nation where corruption has been described as systemic.
In order to build public trust in the government and safeguard State of Emergency funding from potential abuse and misappropriation, TI-PNG has made the following recommendations to the Marape-Steven government.
- Respect citizens and media’s right to ask questions
- Provide timely, accurate, accessible reports on funding
- Present audited spending reports on COVID-19 at the 2 June 2020 parliamentary sitting
If corruption is not prevented in the PNG government’s response, COVID-19 could have a devastating effect on PNG, with the potential loss of life exacerbated by mismanagement and the misapplication of resources.