The Formal, the Informal, and the Precarious: Making a Living in Urban Papua New Guinea


Author/s (editor/s):

Tim Sharp, John Cox, Ceridwen Spark, Stephanie Lusby, Michelle Rooney

Publication year:


Publication type:

Discussion paper

For many Papua New Guineans, the dominant accounts of 'the economy' – contained within development reports, government documents and the media – do not adequately reflect their experiences of making a living. Large-scale resource extraction, the private sector, export cash cropping and wage employment have dominated these accounts. Meanwhile, the broader economic picture has remained obscured, and the diversity of economic practices, including a flourishing 'informal' economy, has routinely been overlooked and undervalued. Addressing this gap, this paper provides some grounded examples of the diverse livelihood strategies people employ in Papua New Guinea's growing urban centres.

We examine the strategies people employ to sustain themselves materially, and focus on how people acquire and recirculate money. We reveal the interconnections between a diverse range of economic activities, both formal and informal. In doing so, we complicate any clear narrative that might, for example, associate waged employment with economic security, or street selling with precarity and urban poverty.

Our work is informed by observations of people's daily lives, and conversations with security guards (Stephanie Lusby), the salaried middle class (John Cox), women entrepreneurs (Ceridwen Spark), residents from the urban settlements (Michelle Rooney) and betel nut traders and vendors (Timothy Sharp). Collectively, our work takes an urban focus, yet the flows and connectivity between urban and rural, and our focus on livelihood strategies, means much of our discussion is also relevant to rural people and places. Our examples, drawn from urban centres throughout the country, each in their own way illustrate something of the diversity of economic activity in urban PNG. Our material captures the innovation and experimentation of people's responses to precarity in contemporary PNG.

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