Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Journal Article Review of Rooney, M. N. (2021). “We Want Development”: Land and Water (Dis) connections in Port Moresby, Urban Papua New Guinea.

Water Development

Lucas Watt, Greg Watt, And Roxane de Waegh

Living in an informal settlement is common in Oceania. High rates of rural-urban migration and poor housing policy forces many to live on customary land on the peripheries of the Oceanic city. There is a great variance in how life is experienced within informal settlements in Oceania, however, informal settlement residents across the region have experienced some form of infrastructural exclusion in some form. What we mean by infrastructural exclusion in informal settlements is that one or more of the formal infrastructural services like water, electricity, garbage disposal, access to education and healthcare, are not provided to residents by their national governments. Anthropologists have begun to argue that denial to infrastructural services is akin to a denial of urban citizenship (Ranganathan, 2014; Rodgers & O’Neill, 2012; Von Schnitzler, 2008). Here we review the latest addition to this literature by Rooney (2021) and her article “We Want Development”: Land and Water (Dis) connections in Port Moresby, Urban Papua New Guinea.

In this review Roxane de Waegh aligns with Rooney (2021) in her argument that the predominance of the western development discourse allows very little room for organic indigenous infrastructural development. She argues that the western development discourse crowds out the possibility of infrastructural development being integrated with local conceptions of customary land ownership and tenure. As such, this deprives Oceanic nations like Papua New Guinea (PNG) of their autonomy and sovereignty. Greg Watt explores a concept inherent in Rooney’s (2021) article that I will take the liberty to call infrastructural equity. Drawing from Lefebvre’s (1968) right to the city, Greg Watt explores what informal settlement residents are conceptually entitled to (and what they actively seek to morally claim), and what is reasonable in a national context where resources allocated to infrastructural development are scarce. Lastly, Lucas Watt, draws from his own field work on electricity infrastructures in informal settlements in Fiji (Watt, 2020). He recommends the use of Postill’s (2011) field of residential affairs, which could assist in analyzing how infrastructures are “co-produced” around the materiality of infrastructure where local morality and development discourse collide.

Re-framing the Concept of Development as an Indigenous and Organic Concept – Roxane de Waegh

Through years of ethnographic research in Port Moresby, Rooney (2021) explores the discursive nexus between development and land. Instead of focusing on the dichotomous framing of development and land that exists throughout Papua New Guinea, which is set up as a contest between custumery landowners and private developers, Rooney concentrates on the experiences of residents in a specific settlement known as ATS. The ATS settlement, situated in the heart of Ports Moresby, is a place where migrants engage in livelihood strategies that straddle rural and urban divide (Barber 2010; Umezaki and Ohtsuka, 2003), and where Melanesians make a living between formal and informal economies (Sharp et al., 2015). Residents of the ATS settlement encounter development through the prism of being indigenous migrants in urban space who neither customarily nor legally own the land they occupy (Rooney, 2021). This situation privileges the rights of customary land owners, government, and wealthier urban residents while undermining the rights of citizens living in settlements (Mecartney and Connell, 2017). The defining fact threatening the livelihoods and social safety of ATS residents is their lack of legal land tenure (Rooney, 2021). To demonstrate this, Rooney (2021) examines how water access is negotiated in the ATS settlement.

The spatialization of water connections based on legal land tenure in urban settings powerfully divides the city along social, economic, and political lines, and this can be seen by following how water connects people, systems, and places (Anand, 2011; Gandy, 2008; Wagner, 2013). The commodification of water in the ATS settlement makes water a central feature of social, economic, and political and governance in the city (Anand, 2011; Gandy, 2008; Loftus, 2009; Swyngedouw, 1997). The water fees, which cover the costs of being connected to the city’s reticulated water supply and the commercial value of water, have illustrated the tension between the moral and economic value of water. It explains how residents of the ATS settlement act collectively as members of a community, as citizens with rights to access water, as customers purchasing commoditized water, and as voters who reward politicians who can help to deliver water. Yet despite acting as law abiding citizens, indigenous migrants of the ATS settlement still do not have any legal title to land tenure.

Rooney (2021) identifies another link between water availability, development and land tenure within the education sector. A common theme found within various community education projects, aimed at responding to concerns about the increasing number of children who were not attending school, revolved around the challenges of land tenure. Between 2013 and 2017, a consistent theme in Rooney’s conversations with community leaders and teachers was their inability to obtain formal recognition from the government and to be eligible for government funds (Rooney, 2021). The conditions for qualifying for government funding included a minimum of two classrooms, two pit toilets, a minimum enrollment of one hundred students, and a water tank or running tap water for drinking. Most importantly, and problematically, the school community must also prove that they have legal tenure over the land. These requirements are a feature of PNGs development policies, which place the responsibility on communities to make customary land and other resources (like water) a condition for state-provided service (Rooney, 2021).

These policy discourses, applied with the national context of land tenure, are aimed at ensuring buy-in from communities in order to guarantee the security of state-funded property, as well as to manage any local landowner disputes (Rooney, 2021). However, this policy logic collapses in the ATS settlement context, because it is based on the dichotomous national development discourse where land is perceived as being customary landowners’ or development actors’ (Rooney, 2021) – and the ATS indigenous migrants are perceived to neither customarily nor legally own the land they occupy (Rooney, 2021). Nevertheless, the city’s education plan and the national discourse on development and land continue to advocate that the solution to this challenge lies in the need to make more customary land available to build schools (NCDC, 2007). However, neither customary nor legal tenure offer support or policies to guide urban communities to formally register their schools. Instead, the ATS settlement must resort to an informal education institution on informally occupied state land – but they formally remain ineligible to receive government funds.

The majority of PNGs land is held under customary land tenure and is increasingly morphed by a capitalist property logic (McDonnell et al., 2017). Since the colonial period, policy makers have been besieged by the tension between making land available for development while protecting the rights of indigenous landowners (Rooney, 2021). The difficulties with reconciling the two land regimes in development discourse is related to the fact that policy makers persist in framing customary land as an impediment to development rather than framing development as a concept that can be grounded in customary land and traditional socio-cultural practices (Power, 2009; Stead, 2017). Through extensive and critical research, Rooney (2021) brilliantly reframed the concept of development as an indigenous and organic concept – highlighting the creative ways that PNG overcome structural challenges in the urban political economy to improve their living standards and contribute to development goals, themselves. Unfortunately, such localised and self-reliant efforts by communities are usually overlooked in official development discourses, which tend to convey development goals in ways that characterize PNG as marginal, poor, vulnerable, and lacking capacity.

West (2016) argues that these framings, combined with terms like capacity building, are based in the Western belief that there is an inherent lack in non-European persons, institutions, and social systems – that forms the basis on which technical solutions are applied, while ignoring the underlying issues that lead to inequality (West, 2016, 72). This discursive framing works to deprive PNG of their sovereignty (West, 2016, 83), and it also resonates with Arturo Escobar’s argument that development works to reinforce the dominance of Western states (Escobar, 1995). Today, Papua New Guineans interweave indigenous customary and relational forms of land tenure with modern western forms of land tenures. In their quest to improve living standards, Indigenous Pacific Islanders draw on temporal, creative, fluid, collective, and relational ways of engaging with Western development discourses (Epeli Ha’uofa, 1994).

The Rights to, and Inequity of, Urban Development – Greg Watt

Rooney (2021) explores the lack of equity associated with the growth and development of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Here Rooney considers the practical complexities surrounding the provision of requisite infrastructure and services to a city’s citizens by investigating the tension and contradictions between local development practices, state capacities and official development discourses (Rooney, 2021)

Rural to urban migration has occurred since the 1960s and has gained increasing momentum, with migrants predominantly moving to informal settlements where their wantoks live (Repič, 2011). A survey carried out in 2008 estimated that 45% of people living in Port Moresby were distributed over a total of 99 settlements, of which only 20 had been planned, while 79 were unplanned (Jones & Suhartini, 2015). By 2013 there were over 140 settlements containing more than 50% of the urban population. Work carried out by the National research institute of PNG suggests that 20 new settlements are being added per annum (Jones & Suhartini, 2015). Utility providers struggle to cope with the pace of growth, even within formal settlements. Further, many informal settlements are situated on marginal lands and are haphazardly organised, making installing water reticulation technically challenging. As well, vandalised lines and illegal connections often make the provision of water supply untenable (Schreconost, Wong, Dutton, & Blackett, 2015)

This discourse places Rooney’s article within a larger context. Firstly, it considers the argument behind the moral, if not constitutional, requirement to cater for the needs of all urban populations. Secondly, it explores the weakness of governance and institutional authorities to engage with the problems associated with informal settlements. Finally, it discusses the notion of equitable distribution of infrastructure and services.

In the first instance, what are the obligations of governance and administrative bodies to urban dwellers? At the core of the issue is whether or not migrants living within peri-urban settlements surrounding Port Moresby have a right to the city (Lefebvre, 1968). Rooney focuses on residents who “are marginal citizens informally occupying state land” (Rooney, 2021, p. 3) and their struggles to obtain access to basic facilities enjoyed by citizens living within the formal environs of the city. Rooney’s study echo’s that undertaken by Watt (2020) who notes that “oceanic governments have deliberately withheld infrastructure denying them essential  resources, human rights, and ways of life” (Watt, 2020, p. 1) . Residents of these peri-urban villages believe that they are discriminated against, despite efforts to obtain recognition from city and national governance. Such communities are viewed as squatters, possessing a makeup that is perceived as transitory, mutable and capricious. This is despite inhabitants setting up development associations that regularly submit applications for infrastructure development, supported by research and budgetary figures. For their part, they perceive themselves as citizens of Port Moresby. This stance is supported by Lefebvre, who asserted that “the link between being a city-dweller and citizenship is inevitable in societies that are becoming urbanised” (Huchzermeyer, 2018, p. 641)     

In the second instance, if it is accepted that equitable distribution of infrastructure in urban areas must be provided, how is this to be manifested? Ultimately, equitable distribution becomes a political issue, which for Port Moresby involves national and local governance. Rooney reports that while colonial administrations tolerated and supported the establishment of informal settlements, that “contemporary governments apply a relatively hostile policy stance toward the urban poor residing in informal spaces, engaging in informal activities, or both” (Rooney, 2021, p. 12).

A notable feature of the political makeup of many Melanesian countries is the incorporation of a significant rural bias where “efforts to ensure broad provincial representation comes at the expense of urban representation” (Barbara & Keen, 2016). The advent of Constituency Development Funds (CDF), allocated to parliament members to spend within their electorates for development purposes, has redirected resources away from urban areas. Further, much of Port Moresby’s administration and development is carried out through the National Capital District Commission (NCDC). For its part, the NCDC operates similarly to local body governments typical of the Global North.  As such, the NCDC operates as a closed entity; that is, its output is restricted by the amount of input it receives. Income is received through land tax, rubbish collection fees, licencing, along with building and planning fees. All these are carried out within the formal economy, and with limited resources, priority will be given to those activities lying within the formal economy. Most activities within settlements are informal, contribute little to NCDC, and therefore are unlikely to receive significant output in the form of infrastructure and services.

In the final instance, what are the issues around citizenship and equity regarding the provision of infrastructure and services? If the socio-economic activity within an urban area acts as a closed-cell, then output is constrained by the amount of input received. From an economic perspective, city income derived from infrastructures, utilities and services provided to formalised settlements should also improve those areas. From an economic stance, equity demands that outputs are vested to those citizens providing the inputs. However, this must be weighed against the social necessity for a city to provide the basic human needs for all its inhabitants. In this social stance, it is the city’s responsibility, along with its existing citizens, to provide for and subsidise new arrivals. This social perspective, which offers social equity, surrounds the notion of caring and providing for everyone.

A balance is required between obtaining economic and social equity. When influxes are relatively small, the economic burden on the city is manageable, and equilibrium between economic and social equity can be attained. However, when influxes become more significant, what then? At a certain threshold, the balance between economic and social distribution becomes unobtainable, egalitarianism becomes stretched, and discrimination becomes prevalent.     

Infrastructural Co-Production in a “Field of Residential Affairs” – Lucas Watt

Residents of informal settlements are often excluded from basic infrastructural services such as water and education provision. Informal settlement residents are excluded from these services because they occupy land in ways that are not recognized by formal urban, land, and development policy. To compound this, informal settlement residents are often prevented from constructing their own infrastructures as they are in violation of these same national urban land and development policies. I have highlighted in my article, Fijian Infrastructural Citizenship: Spaces of Electricity Sharing and Informal Powergrids that Pacific governments that deny informal settlement residents infrastructural services, as well as deny grassroots and culturally appropriate ways of reclaiming such basic services in absence of national provision, is equivalent to denying these residents their urban citizenship (Watt, 2020). Rooney (2021) eloquently framed this denial to citizenship as “(dis)connection” evoking the intertwined material and conceptual separation informal settlement residents experience to the broader urban environment, and subsequently, separation from urban citizenship.

As Rooney (2021) identifies, there are some major practical hurdles in incorporating informal settlement residents into the notion of broader infrastructural citizenship. The primary hurdles are the tensions that customary tenure create, as well as the difficulty in addressing customary tenure tensions in western orientated infrastructural development policy. This inevitability leads infrastructural development to be delayed, sometimes indefinitely. These hurdles cannot be underappreciated and the reading group plan on reading and discussing articles in the AusAID series Making Land Work to further discuss these issues and ways around them.

Regardless of divergent or clashing development policy that prevent infrastructures being formally developed; informal settlement residents still require power water, education and garbage disposal, even if accessing these services are severely compromised. As a result informal settlement residents create partial solutions and temporary materialities where they are able. Informal settlement residents create infrastructures utilizing their local social networks, and in line with local conceptions of moral economy (Simone & Abouhani, 2005) . These infrastructures are either reluctantly permissible, invisible, or combative against formal urban policy. Even when there is great tension between infrastructural entities that may obstruct, delay, or manipulate infrastructural arrangements and their development, you could certainly contend that resulting temporal infrastructures are co-produced as each party influences the resulting infrastructural arrangement (Koster and Nuijten, 2016)

In my own work I have been using Postill’s (2011) field of residential affairs which analyses how “local authorities, residents, firms and other social agents compete and co-operate over residential matters”. In a Boudieuan manner, Postill’s (2011) field of residential affairs allows us to assess how the norms, rules, regulations, and dispositions of all entities who either use, influence, or develop infrastructure, all interact in the “habitus” to co-produce temporal infrastructure. Rooney (2021) does use a conceptual frame that is akin to the field of residential affairs by analyzing “the complex relationship between urban settlement residents, land rights, development, service delivery, and the political economy of water in contemporary urban PNG” (Rooney, 2021, pg 3).

This type of approach is seen in the example where Rooney (2021) describes the role of a state owned enterprise named Eda Ranu played in developing a water infrastructure in informal settlements like the ATS settlement (Rooney, 2021, pg. 17-19). Rooney recounts how Eda Ranu approached the ATS settlement and stated that they could not supply water to the settlement for free, but that they could compromise to provide water based on “bulk billing” to the community rather than billing to individual household meters. This ensured that water would be paid for which was a requirement by the government, but that payment would also would be carried out in a way compatible with communal exchange systems which was characteristic of many other operations of everyday life in the settlement.

For this type of infrastructure to be implemented, Eda Ranu needed to build trust with the community which involved dialogue with local politicians and community groups. Edu Ranu successfully bridged the divide between government and residents which was previously marred with distrust to co-produce a suitable water infrastructure. Each entity involved in infrastructural production interacted in amicable ways to produce an infrastructural arrangement acceptable to each party. Rooney (2021) contends that these relations are vulnerable to shift, but Eda Ranu’s engagement with the ATS informal settlement community has provided some hope from which further co-operation can be built in the infrastructural and other domains of local governance.

What I would have liked to have seen more of in Rooney’s (2021) article is some more details of interactions between infrastructural development entities around infrastructure itself. In the infrastructural domain, its not just people who meet. Local moral economy, ways of being, adapted urban traditions, development discourse, all meet in the materiality around the wires and pipes of infrastructure. Greater observation of the ethnographic minutia around infrastructures would further reveal details about how infrastructure is co-produced in a context where all these different norms, rules, regulations, and dispositions all collide. This attention to co-production around materiality is what a conceptual frame like a field of residential affairs is useful for (see Postill 2011). Interactions around material infrastructure have just as large affect on the arrangement of infrastructures in the long run as direct and formal face to face meetings and agreements away from infrastructure.

Rooney (2021) does start to present this ethnographic material around infrastructure by recounting an incident around a water outlet between a “water caretaker” and local resident user, which exemplified the tension between the moral and economic cost of water.

We need to get water so we can do other things. We need water! We have children and families to look after! We can’t wait here all day for the water to run!” Another woman, the caretaker of the tap, responded, equally angrily, “It’s because people don’t pay. That is why we have to lock the tap. I can’t just sit all day watching for people to pay. People need to be honest about paying. The water committee has made it clear that people need to pay so that the Eda Ranu invoice can be paid. Otherwise, the water will be disconnected and we will all suffer.” The argument between the two women reflects the tension between the moral and economic value of water” (Rooney, 2021, pg 16).

This was an exceptional example that was the highlight of the article for me, however it was only one such interaction around infrastructure from one snapshot of time. I was craving further ethnographic examples like this for greater depth. I was also craving different examples around the many iterations of settlement infrastructures including old infrastructural arrangements, the new infrastructure built by Eda Ranu, as well as the the intervening temporal infrastructures while the new infrastructural system was being set up. New infrastructures are built on very long time-frames especially if they are slowed by resident distrust and land disputes. Intermediate and temporary infrastructural arrangements have their own particular interactions and disputes around them. Analyzing interactions around temporary infrastructures can be very useful as they are sites where infrastructural co-production, and norms and morality embedded in materiality are refined (Watt, 2020). Without some of these iterate observations we are missing some of the contextual analysis in which the materiality of water infrastructure, its practical operation, and its broader meaning regarding citizenship, were progressively and temporally produced. Focusing on some of these temporal iterations of water infrastructure would have been more beneficial than moving onto education infrastructures in the last part of the article in my opinion.

This however is a minor point of contention. Rooney (2021) does put forth some highly relevant concepts regarding infrastructural development and citizenship in informal settlements that needed to be addressed in academic literature and urban policy in broader Oceania. I was delighted to see this topic covered in the highly influential regional journal, The Contemporary Pacific. I look forward to seeing greater ethnographic methodological refinement around infrastructures in informal settlements in the current moment of the”infrastructural turn” to see how infrastructural citizenship in Oceania continues to develop and change. For more discussion on ideas of citizenship and moral economy embedded in infrastructure in Oceania, see our discussion on the development of mobile infrastructures here.

*This is an article review where the authors express their interpretations of the article, supplemented with their own academic and personal knowledge. Any clarifications or other points of discussion are welcomed in the discussion section below*

Banner Image by Dusan Reljic

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


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  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

  • roxanedewaegh

    My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

  • gregwatttraveller

    Greg Watt is an advocate for authenticity in tourism and travel. Greg has previously lived in Papua New Guinea, has had an involvement with tourism in Vanuatu for the past thirteen years and presently has a close association with a community-based tourism project on Tanna Island (seven years). Greg is a doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology, and his Master’s thesis was titled “A Pro-Poor Tourism Case Study: Efate Island, Vanuatu” which looks at ways that poor Ni-Vanuatu can benefit through tourism. For a more detailed look at Greg’s involvement within development and tourism have a look at his blog articles which can be found at https://watt.nz.

2 responses to “Journal Article Review of Rooney, M. N. (2021). “We Want Development”: Land and Water (Dis) connections in Port Moresby, Urban Papua New Guinea.”

  1. […] In our previous review, Greg Watt made the very astute argument that the equitable distribution of infrastructure requires considering both the infrastructural needs/rights of the local population and the limited capacities of Oceanic governments to spend revenue on infrastructural projects. While reading this Bertram (2018) article, with our previous review clear in my mind, I was immediately drawn to the infrastructural needs/rights of the Cook Island residents in a context of fiscal restrictions imposed upon the Cook Island’s government which was briefly explained in the introduction and in Roxane’s section above. In this review of Bertram (2018), I explore whether the infrastructural projects funded by overseas development aid in this context of fiscal restriction in the Cook Islands has resulted in infrastructural (in)equity. […]

  2. […] academic articles often return to how customary land ownership interacts with local development (see one of our previous article reviews on this topic here). Scheyvens et al. (2019) promised to articulate narratives where indigenous entrepreneurs were […]

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