How Papua New Guinea powers voting with solar energy


The government is using solar-powered billboards to bring voting information to its citizens.

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville lies to the east of mainland Papua New Guinea. Straddling the Pacific Ocean and the Solomon Sea, it sits just six degrees south of the Equator, and experiences sweltering heat all year round.

Bougainville consists of a group of islands with approximately 300,000 inhabitants. Following a near decade-long of civil conflict that began in the late 1980s, economic destruction was extensive, and continues to have a profound impact on the daily lives of the local population.

Today, over 70% of the population do not have access to electricity, with the majority relying on wood, charcoal and animal waste for cooking and heating. These figures are staggering, but sadly remain the norm for many who live in rural communities throughout Papua New Guinea.

In 2001, the National Government of Papua New Guinea (GoPNG) and key figures in Bougainville signed the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) in the hope of restoring peace and development in the region.

As part of the BPA, citizens of Bougainville will participate in a referendum in 2019 to decide the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG)’s independence. Without access to electricity, however, many of Bougainville’s residents lack access to information around the referendum, unsure of what it entails or when it would happen.

It became clear that the lack of basic services such as electricity was impeding not only daily activities, but fundamental access to public information and their abilities to fully exercise their voting rights. ABG’s leaders saw the need to keep Bougainvilleans informed in the lead up to the referendum, while also leveraging innovative ways to provide affordable and clean energy for all.

Solar-powered billboards

Image: UNDP, Papua New Guinea/Facebook – CC BY 2.0

In line with this, the ABG saw the need to explore alternate sources of power over fossil powered sources of energy, to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. With the support of UNDP and its Peace Building in Bougainville project, ABG installed three solar-powered, electronic billboards in three central towns of Bougainville.

These solar powered billboards showcase videos and key messages to raise awareness of the referendum to the people of ABG, equipping them with the knowledge needed to make an informed decision in the lead up to the referendum. Authorities are also able to engage with citizens through announcements on the billboards, and encourage citizen participation.

The billboards are also located next to newly established Community Information Centres that act as a one-stop centre for visitors to learn about ABG, GoPNG, the referendum, and the implementation of the BPA. The solution promotes the adoption of clean and renewable sources of energy, while ensuring the population is better prepared for the referendum.

James Tanis, former President of the ABG and a key figure in the 2001 Peace Agreement expressed his confidence that the government would be able to work with UNDP to “use clean and green solutions to power our work… [and] overcome the challenges we faced in regard to electricity access, while… contributing to wider endeavours such as the Sustainable Development Goals”.

“The ABG are, without doubt, demonstrating great innovation in Papua New Guinea with regards to ensuring that the Sustainable Development Goals lie at the heart of numerous pieces of policy and decision making,” says UNDP Peace Building Fund Project Coordinator, Lawrence Bassie. “With the solar-powered billboards, not only are we seeing important messages being broadcast, they’re also showing what can be done through the use of a renewable green energy source.” The hope is that these billboards will inspire communities in Bougainville to harness solar energy to address multiple social needs, and make the shift towards a clean and green future on their own.

What’s next

No one knows what the future will bring for Bougainville, but the hope is that these solar-powered billboards will provide each citizen with the knowledge to make an informed decision at the referendum and contribute to their society’s democratic process. This would enable them to heal the wounds of civil war and rebuild their society in a sustainable way, by leveraging sources of renewable energy.

Through the use of a renewable and green energy source, more citizens will be granted access to electricity that will aid them in their daily activities. The public sector plays a key role in expanding infrastructure and upgrading technology to provide clean energy in all developing countries. This will be critical for encouraging growth, helping the environment, and ultimately maintaining peace through sustainable means.

This article was originally published by UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in the book ‘Public Service 2030: Making the Sustainable Development Goals happen’.