Waylaid Dialectic

May 24, 2010

Clientelism in PNG and Solomon Islands – a typology

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 4:02 pm
Tags: ,

…or, at least, a stab at a typology of different explanations.

To an outside observer, three features of politics in PNG and Solomon Islands really stand out: the high turn over of MPs, the absence of ideology driven party politics, and above all the clientelistic nature of politics. Much of politics appears to involve getting one’s hands on government resources and redistributing them to supporters or wantoks.

The ramifications of this clientelism are pretty clearly manifest in the poor performance of governance in the two countries. The million dollar question (and the question part propelling my PhD to date), of course, is why. Why is politics in the two countries so clientelistic?

Needless to say I don’t have an answer but from what I’ve read to-date I think I can sketch a typology of explanations. With the caveat being, in the words of Duncan Green, that “typologies do violence to nuance”:

  1. Ethnic clientelism: the various different wantoks in the countries have a primordial distrust of each other. And fail to cooperate in national level politics for this reason.
  2. Rational clientelism: in the absence of national politics, people and politicians, even if they don’t inherently distrust other wantoks, face a collective action dilemma. It’s no use committing to national politics until everyone else does. And until they do, the best option is to look after one’s own.
  3. Manipulation of custom – left to their own accord people could start cooperating at a national level. However, less than scrupulous elites play upon people’s latent propensity to distrust other wantoks. This is a terrible governance strategy but an effective election strategy if you’re a member of the political elite keen on enriching oneself.
  4. Resource curse clientelism: the only thing inherent about the context of these countries which leads to clientelism is abundance of natural resources. Timber and minerals and certain types (read Taiwanese) aid have corrupted these countries’ polities. Had this not occurred things might have been much different. (Note: this draws straight from Resource Curse literature in development economics).
  5. Reverse causality clientelism: because the state is poor and inept, it simply can’t provide services on a national level. For this reason there’s not much use any particular electorate or politician striving towards a national polity – rather people and politicians are better off taking what they can get their hands on. In other words it’s not clientelism that causes the government to be ho-hum; it’s ho-hum government which causes clientelism.

For what it’s worth I’m mostly in Camp 2. And my research at present is tilting towards the building blocks of cooperation (trust, norms and beliefs about fairness) in an attempt to explain why cooperation does and doesn’t occur.

</thesis blogging>



  1. I see the article was written 2 years ago. How has your PhD gone? Would be interested to know.

    Comment by Calvin — November 18, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  2. Terence, I didn’t realize this blog was yours. Serves me right. Should have looked for the authors name 🙂 Anyway, good to read your past and recent posting. Would be glad to chat on this a little more on the subject. Cheers. Calvin

    Comment by Calvin — November 18, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

  3. Hi Calvin,

    Good to hear from you, it would be great to chat. I hope to make back to Sols in the middle of next year. Or if you’re ever in Canberra let me know. If you haven’t seen them I have three blog posts up on ANU’s DevPolicy blog on Solomons elections:



    Comment by terence — November 18, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

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