Category Archives: Development Indicators

Oceania and the lands that data forgot

{Originally published as, 11 April 2016]

Previously (El Niño hits Papua New Guinea…HARD), I wrote about the effects of the 2015-16 El Niño event in Papua New Guinea. People in the high altitude and rain shadow areas of the country had suffered severe food shortages, while neither the National Disaster Centre nor its provincial affiliates had the resources to send staff outside their urban bases to examine the situation for themselves. Worse, the government appeared to block offers of help from those that provided assistance the last time around: the agricultural assessment experts, the NGOs, and various bilateral and multilateral donors.

In the face of adversity, I said, outside experts managed to assemble a credible picture of the disaster with the assistance of civil society organisations, churches and citizens using email, social media and instant messaging apps, all made possible by the rollout of low cost cell phone networks across the country since 2007.

A glimmer of hope was that images of malnourished children brought to the capital and shown on Facebook in January 2016 had – so I thought – finally stirred the government into action. The media quoted a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office saying that a helicopter was being moved to the distant station of Nomad in the Western Province to start distributing emergency supplies.

Sadly, this proved to be a deception. As the photographer, Sally Lloyd, said in a comment to my blog, a helicopter did fly around the area, but it departed without assisting local communities. Seven weeks on, some food has at last reached the area, but deaths of weakened people have been occurring on a regular basis.

I can now give an update both on the continuing food security assessment and reflect on the absence of a monitoring capacity for anything of a biophysical nature in the remote, and largely mountainous interior of the country.

The World Food Program’s Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM) unit has spent the last three years developing a mobile VAM, or mVAM, project[1] to collect data remotely using voice and text (SMS) surveys through mobile phones. As of early 2016, mVAM was being used in 11 countries for food security assessments.[2]

Recently, a WFP mVAM team worked with the PNG National Disaster Centre and the phone company Digicel, owner of the broadest network coverage in PNG, to bring in fresh reports from across the country. After three days of training on mVAM, operators were able to obtain 3,709 completed surveys from 233 of PNG’s 303 Local Level Government (LLG) areas (Figure 2).[3]

Figure 2. Distribution of households in Papua New Guinea contacted by mVAM and the Papua New Guinea National Disaster Centre in February 2016 (source:
Figure 2. Distribution of households in Papua New Guinea contacted by mVAM and the Papua New Guinea National Disaster Centre in February 2016 (source:

As much as this is a huge step up from the inaction of 2015, if you know what you are looking for, you can still see that the hardest hit areas, like the above-mentioned Nomad, typically had just one call response each. mVAM is a great solution to doing rapid assessments, but the situation really points to the fact that Oceania as a whole is a blank for bio-physical science infrastructure.

Take for example GNOMO, the Global Network Of Mountain Observatories[4] there is little joy to be had in Oceania. The nearest GNOMO-listed sites to Papua New Guinea are 7000 km away in Hawaii, 4800 km away in Japan, and 3400 km away in southern Australia (Figure 3).

Figure 3. GNOMO-listed mountain observatories in Oceania (source:
Figure 3. GNOMO-listed mountain observatories in Oceania (source:

In the last century, places like Papua New Guinea captivated fantasy writers and inspired titles like The Land that Time Forgot (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1924). Today, these same places find themselves playing a part in a new fantasy: the world as constructed by development agencies and the numerous branches of the UN.

On measure after measure, from the obvious to the obscure – the Gender Development Index, performances of 15-year-old students in reading and mathematics, total tax revenue, R&D expenditure, fossil fuels as a percentage of primary energy supply, employment in agriculture, labour force with tertiary education, violence against women, exports and imports as a percentage of GDP, trust in national government, population living on degraded land – you name it, the international agencies report ‘missing or insufficient data’.[5] And the same is true of food security in Papua New Guinea, according to the World Food Program (Figure 1).

But on measure after measure, countries like PNG find themselves constructed, whether they like it or not, as Lands that Data Forgot. Why is this?

Sometimes it is true there are no data but, as I have been at pains to demonstrate, there often are. The mentality seems to be that Pacific nations do not ‘do’ science or data reporting. Pacific political leaders, as they did after COP21 in Paris in respect to climate change, are good at making dramatic international appeals for external action on issues of the day – but both they and their public service heads tend to forget that they have their own domestic research institutions, like the university that I work at and many others. Copying them, the international agencies appear to be fooled into thinking that Pacific research institutions have nothing to say, instead of engaging with them and getting some answers.

So this is why we have the ‘mobile tech innovation’ of an mVAM survey but not GNOMO-listed mountain observatories – it is as much about the belief that big science infrastructure belongs in the small countries of Oceania that occupy a wide expanse of the earth’s surface as finding the means to make this happen.





[5]      These examples all come from the 2015 UNDP Human Development Report.