21 December 2018
I recently spent ten days working with an international team of parliamentary staff in Papua New Guinea.
I worked with the UN Development Programme to write an impartial budget briefing for MPs and to train PNG Parliament staff to do the same in the future. It was an intense but ultimately rewarding experience.
The floating budget office
Small parliaments, particularly in developing countries, often lack resources to develop their own in-house research capacity. This is an issue for Pacific island countries and the UNDP has developed a flexible model – the Pacific floating budget office – which Pacific parliaments can use to share expertise and support each other during their respective budget processes.
The “floating budget analysis team” is made up of volunteer specialists from other parliaments, mainly in the Pacific, who come together to work with local staff to produce an impartial budget briefing for MPs. The volunteers also train the local staff and leave supporting materials. The idea being that local staff produce the budget briefing the following year, with some outside support if needed.
This year, the UNDP sent budget analysis teams to PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Enhancing the international reputation of the Assembly as a world-class parliament from which others can learn is a strategic priority for the Assembly Commission. Staff therefore have a valuable role in contributing towards delivering this priority by participating in projects that help build capacity in developing countries.
It had to be PNG
As a child, few places stirred my imagination like New Guinea, the mysterious island on the far side of the world. A land of rainforests, mountains and swamps inhabited by myriad different peoples, each with its own distinct language and culture. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer in PNG, I absolutely had to go.
Of course I saw none of this! The romantic version of PNG is there to be discovered by intrepid travellers who venture beyond Port Moresby, the country’s dusty and sprawling capital. But I was in Port Moresby on a budget mission and spent most of my time working at the PNG Parliament or the UNDP offices.
The reality is that PNG is a developing country facing many challenges. It’s considered a poor country despite its rich natural resources, and while it has growing mineral, gas and commercial agriculture sectors, the large majority of its people live in remote areas and are engaged in subsistence agriculture or fishing.
The lure of the cities often turns to disappointment and high levels of violent crime make Port Moresby one of the world’s most dangerous urban centres.
PNG is also a difficult place to be a woman. It ranks 159 out of 160 countries on the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index reflecting significant inequality in women’s health outcomes, empowerment and economic status. Gender-based violence is a major issue with a recent study concluding that 67 per cent of women in PNG reported having experienced some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.
It’s a country prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions and, like other Pacific island countries, is also bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change.
The budget mission took place in early November and was the first time the PNG Parliament has requested assistance from the floating budget office. Parliamentary staff had identified the need to support MPs to improve scrutiny of the Government’s budget proposals.
The budget team was made up of a mix of researchers, analysts and clerks from the parliaments of Wales, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Tonga and New South Wales, with support from UNDP staff.
We had ten days to prepare the budget briefing and presentation, and prepare for a training seminar with PNG Parliament staff. We worked long hours, with just one afternoon off, but sharing experiences with these new colleagues was fascinating.
The budget briefing
I led on the contextual section of the briefing, leaving the more technical parts to the finance and budget specialists in the team (my background is in environmental policy). This gave me the opportunity to research topics that were quite different to those I would normally work on in Wales. These were:
- recovery from a serious earthquake in the highlands earlier in 2018;
- preparations for an independence referendum in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (a condition of the peace agreement that ended the civil war that took place there in the 1990s);
- legacy work around the APEC summit, which happened to be taking place in Port Moresby while we were there;
- encouraging gender equality; and
- tackling and mitigating the effects of climate change.
On our final full day, we presented the briefing to a room of MPs. I’m used to presenting to elected Members and answering their probing questions in my job at the Assembly, but doing so in an unfamiliar environment with MPs I knew very little about was a nerve-wracking experience!
Building capacity in the host parliament is an important aspect of the floating budget office initiative. PNG Parliament staff shadowed us while we worked which was a learning experience for everyone. While they gained an insight into how we researched and drafted the briefing, we also gained vital local context to the budget information which significantly improved our final product.
After the presentation to MPs, the mission finished with the training seminar during which we discussed the whole process with the PNG staff. We left the templates and guidance materials we had developed for them to use in the future.
The experience wasn’t without its challenges, and I would have been disappointed if it had been easy. One of my motivations for going was to test myself in an unfamiliar setting.
Most of the issues can be thrown into the “First World problems” basket – working with unfamiliar processes, intermittent internet, difficulty in finding information. This on top of jet-lag and the nausea caused by my malaria medication.
The biggest culture-shock for me though was the security. Our accommodation was protected by security guards and, other than walking the 100m or so as a group to the UNDP offices, we couldn’t travel around on foot or at all after dark. But it worked, never once did I feel close to being in any danger. Perhaps this is the reality for foreign workers in places like Port Moresby.
My experience in PNG wasn’t easy, but I learned so much by challenging myself to go into an unfamiliar environment and from working with colleagues from the other parliaments. I’m optimistic we left a legacy of support and advice for the PNG staff that will help them when they prepare for budget scrutiny in the future.
The UNDP press release on the mission can be found here: National Parliament to receive independent analysis of the 2019 National Budget
The budget snapshot produced as part of the briefing can be found on the PNG Parliament’s website here: 2019 National Budget Snapshot
Article by Elfyn Henderson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service