APEC 2018 Senior Officials' Meeting (SOM) - Blog 1

February 27, 2018

By David Dodwell

So Papua New Guinea’s APEC year begins in earnest with the arrival in Port Moresby of hundreds of jet-lagged APEC officials for the first cluster of Senior Official Meetings.
Those fleeing frigid northern hemisphere winters will be basking in the sultry tropical air. Others will be appreciating the marvellously short and uncluttered journey from Port Moresby’s tiny airport. I am without question appreciating the newly-built Stanley Hotel, which is delivering unexpected comfort. In a city where wandering the streets alone is ill-advised, it is a great relief to find comfortable rooms, reliable (if slow) internet, a gigantic gym, a pool good for laps, and a little mall attached to provide a pleasant liberating sense of being able to wander just a little.
As with most hospitality-stretched cities, Port Moresby is forcing on APEC the need to spread meetings across four hotels. I have yet to test our shuttles, and as yet have no idea whether the other hotels provide the space and comfort of the Stanley, but since most of the big meetings that we have in the diary over the coming two weeks are at the Stanley, I am not complaining.

While the Business Mobility Group and a few of the more esoteric working groups (like the Chemicals Dialogue and the Expert Group on Illegal Logging) rolled up their sleeves last Saturday (I have yet to discover whether there were any interesting or important developments on the APEC Business Travel Card), meetings began in earnest on Monday with the first of a week of Human Resources Development Working Group (HRDWG) Meetings, and a large gathering of scientists around the Policy Partnership on Science, Technology and Innovation (PPSTI).
Hong Kong’s Nick Brooke, our ABAC liaison with the PPSTI, has quickly been sucked into discussions on APEC-funded science projects for the year ahead, and with luck my blog may be able to provide feedback from Nick on progress later in the week.
That leaves me focusing on the HRDWG, and the irresistible pressure to discuss the digital revolution, future jobs, and what officials should best do to guide APEC economies into the wrenching transitions ahead in the world of work. In many ways, PNG is the least likely place in the world in which to debate the digital revolution. By far APEC’s poorest economy, with 87 per cent of jobs still in agriculture (most of them in remote subsistence farming) and more than 28 per cent of the country’s GDP accounted for by the farm sector (compared with 18 per cent in Vietnam, and just over 8 per cent for China, Malaysia and Thailand), Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things seem centuries away. Even basic internet has a very fragile toehold.
But there was value in putting on fresh lenses, and seeing how the digital revolution may be playing out in APEC’s most farm-dependent economy. With a total population of just 8m, and over 250 languages dispersed over impenetrable jungle-clad mountains, the task of digital infrastructure-building takes on a new and very basic meaning. Commitments to build coding into the primary school curriculum may be firm, but with just 20,000 kids “pushing out” from the school system annually, and an average of just 5-6,000 new jobs a year, the task of embedding digital skills into PNG’s many communities looks unusually challenging.
But undaunted officials are looking at potentially significant initiatives not just in export-oriented agriculture like coffee, cocoa, palm oil, sweet potatoes and copra, but in the country’s many remote subsistence-farming communities. Even basic internet infrastructure and basic mobile phones can link villagers to markets, and to a better knowledge of market prices. Information sharing on weather, or extension services and resource centres to advise on productivity improvements, or micro-finance services have the prospect of delivering important gains.

There is much to learn in the coming week, even comfortably ensconced in the untypical luxury of the Stanley Hotel.
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