By Elizabeth (Sabet) Cox
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), even when you live on customary land and subsist largely on the natural food resources available in your rural village, you will need cash. Outside informal trade, there are few alternatives to finding the money needed to meet the most basic needs and to pay for children’s education, family health and the community contributions that sustain informal social protection systems. With a population of about 25,000, Wewak town has at least fifteen ‘markets’ and many more informal, street trading hubs of various sizes, operating under different regimes. Only one is managed by local government.
Every day, an estimated three to five thousand women are trading under challenging conditions. While some women vendors can build viable, small enterprises, most live precariously from day to day, on small incomes derived from informal trade and many have done so for decades. Many women vendors have grown up alongside their grandmothers and mothers who were informal traders and now they follow in their footsteps. Returning home at the end of the day ‘empty handed’ increases the probability of children being deprived of adequate food or education and of family stress, conflict and domestic violence.
It is almost 45 years since PNG achieved independence. The PNG constitution aimed to guide equitable, inclusive and sustainable development, but a succession of male politicians has built an economy based on large scale extractive industries – mining, petroleum, gas, logging and fisheries. Extractive industry projects have undermined the livelihood of a rural majority and failed to generate national revenues that translate into effective service delivery to meet the basic needs of the citizens. Promises of free education and health care are failing, the isolation and neglect of the rural majority persists, and poverty deepens. Markets are the workplace of so many women, and an important source of food security and good nutrition for the general population. Women trading in PNG’s massive informal economy are the lifeline for their families, but without visibility, voice and influence, street traders and women market traders are powerless and oppressed.
In the main Wewak market, with the largest congregation of vendors, the urban Local Level Government (LLG) collects daily taxes (gate fees) from women vendors. Local government has very few other regular sources of revenue as too many of the town’s wealthier residents and local businesses default on council rate payments. It’s far easier to collect taxes from poor women market and street vendors, who are punished heavily if they default. Wewak’s main market has 1000-1500 women vendors’ daily – 96% are female. The fees and taxes paid by market vendors provide substantial daily revenue for LLG operation – a fact that is invisible and ignored by both local government and the general public. No one is able to trace where these market revenues go and how they are spent. But very little of the revenues collected is reinvested into market management, maintenance, cleaning or improvement of the working conditions, facilities or services to tax-paying vendors.
Currently, Wewak town market, like so many other municipal markets throughout Melanesia, is a profitable operation but is oppressive, exploitative, and extractive of women vendors’ hard-earned, small incomes. The vendors endure daily ‘working conditions’ that are unsafe, unhygienic, and discriminatory on the basis of gender, class and rural commuters or urban residents.
Wewak’s many other smaller and scattered street markets and trading hubs operate in ad hoc and gender discriminatory ways, usually personally benefitting an opportunistic local landowner, local politician or businessman who insist vendors pay ‘informal taxes’, often using extreme bullying tactics. Without information and organisation, vendors are unable to protest or voice their priorities, needs and concerns. They will remain vulnerable, invisible, marginalised and poor.
While the situation of markets and informal traders in Wewak is the similar across PNG and Melanesia, the country is unique in having legislation intended to promote and protect the Informal Economy (The Informal Economy Development and Control Act 2009). This IE Act provides an opportunity to return to the core principles of PNG’s Constitution, protecting the rights of the urban poor and the rural population alike. However, the PNG government has a poor track record in prioritizing, planning budgeting and delivering on social development, so implementation of the IE Act has been extremely slow. Most vendors know nothing about it.
Founded in 1999, HELP Resources (HELP-R) is currently led by a younger generation of development workers working in an extremely challenging development context. HELP’s mission is to work with local government and civil society to deliver more effectively on laws, policies and strategies for social protection and development. Focus areas are promotion and protection of women and children’s rights, community-based access to information and education, documentation and promotion of endangered material knowledge, and development and protection of the informal economy.
Pacific Peoples’ Partnership and HELP Resources Team Up
In 2017 Pacific Peoples’ Partnership (PPP) and HELP-R planned a pilot project to demonstrate effective, district-level implementation of the IE Act, and associated government policy and strategy. The pilot project aims to facilitate education, information and training that will motivate and support emerging vendors organisations and their leaders to find their collective voice and influence planning, budgeting for effective Development.
Staff and associates of both PPP and HELP-R have previously worked together to facilitate PPP links with Sepik artists. HELP-R is based in Wewak, the provincial capital of the East Sepik Province, the gateway to the Sepik River, where PPP has well-established links with women and men carvers, weavers and painters. HELP-R has facilitated the communication and cooperation links between PPP and remote communities on the river and most recently has enabled one village to set up safe water supplies. However, the ‘Vendors Voice’ partnership is a new and exciting joint venture to realize a transformative process conceptualized and drafted by HELP-R.
The project is about making vendors aware of the PNG Constitution, the IE Act, and PNG’s commitments to global human rights and gender equality norms and standards and sustainable and inclusive development. It is about engaging vendors in participatory research to become more aware of the injustice of their ‘working conditions’ and the current governance of markets and street trade. The project aims to strengthen women vendors’ organisation, leadership, confidence and capacity to advocate for change and shape informal economy development as it was envisaged in the constitution and in the new IE law. On the supply side, the project will also contribute to the gender and rights awareness and sensitization of local government leaders and administrators, so that constructive engagement of vendors with local government is possible and effective.
The Commonwealth Foundation (CF) is the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society, supporting participation in democracy and development. It supports ‘civic voices’ to act together and influence the institutions that shape people’s lives. The Foundation works to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development with effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels of participatory governance, which implies creative and constructive engagement between civil society and other governance stakeholders. CF awards funding for sustainable development projects that contribute to effective, responsive and accountable governance with civil society participation.
In early 2017, HELP-R prepared a project proposal to submit to the Commonwealth Foundation and PPP agreed to act as the fiscal agent, assisting with the monitoring of project implementation, preparation of annual narrative and financial reports. HELP Resources is the lead NGO in frontline project implementation and is engaging and working alongside several other local NGOs.
In 2017 CF awarded a grant for the Vendors’ Voice 3-year project which aims to support women market vendors and street traders to negotiate for decent work conditions and fairer and transparent informal economy development and governance. The project supports women vendors and informal street traders to achieve this through effective organisation, mobilization and empowerment to raise their ‘Collective Voice’ and shape the application of the Informal Economy Act to market and street trade planning, budgeting, governance and development. Constructive Dialogue between vendors and local government and the development of participatory governance structures, mechanisms and processes for market and informal economy development, are at the heart of the project. Recognition of informal trading as legitimate ‘work’ that is the backbone of the local economy, ensuring a decent and safe workplace for women vendors – free from violence and exploitation – bring important anticipated results.
Year 2 Builds on New Evidence and Opportunities
Year One of the project was completed in September 2018 laying the foundation for targeted training of women market and street vendors and local government leaders and administrators. From August to November 2018, HELP-R established a daily presence at the market, working through selected vendors to conduct daily tallies while also logging common daily problems. Hundreds of vendors were consulted and provided information at a booth operated daily at the market. Operated by HELP-R and other local civil society partners, the booth provided preliminary information about the project and its focus on good governance, rights and responsibilities in the working context of market and street trading. Information was offered, mainly through public talks at the main market, as well as through several local radio programs.
In October 2018 HELP-R with a team of vendors and local community development leaders, completed a baseline survey across Wewak’s only government-managed market and twelve more informal markets.
In a new development at the start of Year 2, PNG’s national government decided to include the East Sepik Province in a National Audit of the Informal Economy and UN Women announced that it will launch a market-based project in another rural district of East Sepik Province. In addition to the government statistical audits and the UN’s large-scale project scoping, HELP-R’s more in-depth qualitative baseline survey brings a strong gender analysis and rights framework that will inform and complement these new efforts to roll out government informal economy policy. In Year 2, HELP-R will focus more on women vendors ‘education and organisation for constructive engagement with local government, based on its comparative advantage in working with women vendors, informing and educating them through a range of popular education strategies and tools.
Once tested and refined in Wewak, it is likely that the knowledge, tools and trainers resulting from the project can be replicated to serve women vendors in other districts of the East Sepik Province and other provinces of PNG. This will be a significant contribution to translating PNG’s Informal Economy law, policy and strategy into reality, and to making the daily trading by women visible and valued.
You may also visit, ‘Like’ and ‘Follow’ the HELP Resources Facebook page, Sepik Market Vendors and Informal Traders. Results of the baseline survey and project progress achievements will be uploaded on this site throughout 2019.
Elizabeth (Sabet) Cox (email: email@example.com) has lived and worked in the East Sepik Province of PNG for 4 decades, in various sectors of social development. She founded HELP Resources with a group of Sepik activists in 1999, and later went on to work with the PNG Government and the United Nations. As Pacific Regional Director of UN Women, she designed projects to improve the status and conditions of women vendors and the governance of municipal markets across Melanesia. Elizabeth continues to provide technical support to HELP-R and several women’s rights and rural development organisations in the Highlands of PNG.