The Importance of Leadership and the Magic of Roads

Yesterday, I described the grim state of PNG politics and administration, but the Aussies decided to send me to an outlier (in both senses) – the remote inland district of

Me and the Member for Nuku
Me and the Member for Nuku

Nuku. Nuku is in the middle of a fascinating mini-transformation, and DFAT is pretty excited about it.

That transformation forced me to question two of my extensive array of NGO prejudices – suspicion of political leaders, and scepticism of the importance of building roads.

First, some essential background. Nuku, with 70,000 people speaking 41 different languages, is one of PNG’s most deprived districts. Sorry to sound like a civil serpent servant, but when you’re on one of these trips, you have to get to grips with the different tiers of administration, because that’s how everyone thinks and talks. In PNG’s case, there are 22 provinces, each of which are subdivided into districts, some 89 in all. Those in turn are divided into further tiers, with the lowest being wards of a thousand or so people, of which Nuku has 84.

Each district is completely dominated by its MP – the introduction of the Westminster system of First Past the Post turbocharged PNG’s traditional Big Man system (there are few Big Women – the gender rights situation in PNG is dire), although the recent addition of an element of proportional representation may have moderated that a bit. Over to the great paper by Bruce Harris (Harris PNG Nation in Waiting 2007):

‘The “big man” becomes such through his own efforts, not through ascription as a member of a chiefly lineage or as a result of a position in a feudal structure.  To achieve the position of “big man” requires, above all, the creation of a group of followers, a faction.  The larger the faction the more power accrues to the leader.  The genuine big man is a compelling figure.  He has impressive oratorical skills, the instincts of a shrewd businessman able to manipulate the system of reciprocity and exchange to his own ends, and is, above all, a populist political leader with charismatic qualities who has gained the unquestioned allegiance of a large group of dedicated followers who have nearly unquestioned faith in him.’

And a lot of that describes Joseph Sungi MP (right), known throughout Nuku simply as ‘the Member’.  Joe is a Big Man in every sense, his bull neck and large frame encased in a dapper pin striped suit, oozing authority and confidence.

Freshly cut and gravelled all weather road
Freshly cut and gravelled all weather road

Joe is a man on a mission, and that mission is roads. Using the discretionary funds at every MP’s disposal, he plans to build all-weather roads to every one of Nuku’s 84 wards by the next election in 2017.

‘When we went home for Christmas we had to walk the last 7km to get to our villages. Our kids don’t want to go back home any more. In my village I said, this is the last time I walk here – next time I’ll be in a car. So I made sure the road was built, to show I am a man of my word. Then the people are convinced.’

On Nuku’s rapidly-proliferating road system, we see plenty of evidence that this obsession is bearing fruit. The district has used its budget to buy 13 shiny yellow pieces of earth moving equipment, hire a civil engineer, and work is under way.

Conversations with everyone from officials to church and women’s groups at ward level show that Joe has tapped a nerve. Everyone is enthusiastic about the roads. Like a giant magnet surrounding by iron filings, Joe’s leadership has helped  build a sense of optimism and common purpose. Conversations suggest that roads have almost magical properties: they allow farmers to get their cocoa to market, reduce the costs of resupplying schools and clinics, help retain teachers and nurses (who previously were reluctant to go to such cut-off locations). Of course, they aren’t a panacea – women and church leaders worry about some of the negative influences that are entering with improved links, while women farmers say they can now get their crops to Nuku’s main town, but often can’t find buyers and end up just taking them home again.

Joe’s other priority is even more innovative – taking a large wad of local funding and handing it directly over to the wards, US$10,000 each, to spend as they please. In PNG this is revolutionary – the Big Man is handing over money even to villages that didn’t vote for him. The more traditional spending pattern is on display in the yard of the District Administrator’s office in Nuku, where 4 landcruisers are parked up (see pic), the first instalment of some 20 vehicles that the previous Member allegedly handed out to his cronies, which are all now being confiscated.

Joe’s bio echoes a lot of the research of the Development Leadership Programme: the son of subsistence farmers, well down the clan hierarchy, he was educated at an Australian Catholic mission school, and then a boarding school for the best and brightest kids from around the country, where he developed a sense of public ethics and loyalties beyond the village. He went into local administration as an agricultural extension worker, was galvanized by an ADB scholarship to do a Masters in the Philippines, and rose to be the top civil servant in the province before deciding to go into politics.

His understanding of leadership? ‘The key is you talk to people. I don’t write letters – John (his adviser, from a nearby village) does the writing, I do the talking! Most of

Confiscated vehicles awaiting resale
Confiscated vehicles awaiting resale

what I do is informal – I owe it all to informal relationships.’

As PNG’s decentralization plans place even more power and cash in the hands of MPs, helping leaders like Joe flourish at the expense of their more kleptocratic colleagues could become an important element of the aid programme. ‘If Members themselves don’t have desire and ambition, there’s not much we can do – maybe a fifth of MPs think like me on this.’

The first step is to understand how they emerge, and then consider what, if anything, outsiders can do to help.

But I think I should stress that I haven’t completely drunk the koolaid on this. Joe seems to have made a great start, but there are hardly any restraints on his discretion, should he at some point end up breaking bad. Good leaders are no substitute for good institutions, so the broader question is how to turn one into the other.

Tomorrow: is positive deviance the best way to transform aid in PNG?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


9 Responses to “The Importance of Leadership and the Magic of Roads”
  1. Ann Lily Marie O. Uvero

    Traditionally, it is what a “Big Man” should be doing. Remembering a discussion in one pacific country, older leaders mused on the slowness of the current reform agenda, that perhaps the current Westminster Model should be re-think. On a leadership pattern suited to the pacific culture.

  2. Francisco T

    I find it amazing that road-building needs to be defended in this way. I understand that it does, I understand as an intervention road-building is now caught in that double bind of seeming both old-fashioned (what is this, 1958?) and environmentally-suspect. But in few other subjects is the gap between polite donor discourses and the complaints of people on the ground as uniform and loud. Complaints about road connectivity are pretty much universal in rural areas.

    I think of it as a paradigmatic case of Donor Privilege. People in donor countries just have no basis in lived experience for just how opportunity-constricting it can be to simply not have any practical way to get from where you are to where you need to go. It’s very hard for people to empathize, because they just can’t imagine that situation. Connectivity in rich countries has reached a plateau of taken-for-grantedness that renders that moment of putting-yourself-in-the-other’s-shoes almost impossible.

    And so road-building projects don’t get funded. The money goes to conservation farming schemes that resonate with funders. It’s maddening.

      • Duncan Green

        Hmm, not so much skepticism as a constant process of churn that airbrushes a number of issues off the development agenda because they aren’t reinforced by the daily conversations, reading, meetings etc. In NGO land that would include cinderella issues such as road traffic, tobacco, alcohol (all bigger killers in developing countries than malaria), but also importance of growth, faith institutions, technology and yes, roads. I’m sure the same process goes on in other parts of the aid jungle, but different things get airbrushed out (women’s rights, power, contestation). All part of the process of generating multiple overlapping ‘epistemic communities’ I guess! (see

  3. Tess Newton Cain

    The best thing DFAT can do for Joe is provide a budget to maintain his roads and train up local communities to do first-level preventative maintenance on a fee for service basis. There is little to no political capital to be gained from road maintenance programmes but there may be in creating a way of earning cash other than taking goods to markets where there are no customers. There is a great opportunity to shift the perception of ‘the state’ as a provider (or in many cases non-provider) to seeing the state/district authority as a customer.
    For more on roads in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific and especially the vexed question of maintenance vs neglect & rebuild suggest you look at the work done by Matthew Dornan at the Development Policy Centre.

  4. Laurence Chandy

    What can Big Man Joe do to guarantee the good condition of the Sepik Highway, which links Nuku with the rest of PNG and the world? The truly magical properties of his district roads hinges on this.