Papua New Guinea has a population officially estimated at around 9.4 million people, but it actually could be twice that, according to a new U.N. study that the local government has tried to suppress.
The Southeast Asian country was supposed to undertake a census in 2021, but that has been pushed back to 2024 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The country hasn’t done a census since 2011. The U.N. study used satellite imaging, housing data and surveys to compile its numbers.
The U.N. study was withheld from publication at the behest of the Papua New Guinea government, according to The Australian newspaper.
Papua New Guinea’s population could instead be as high as 17 million, which would put its current economic indicators in a much different light.
With a doubled population, The Australian pointed out, the country’s per capita income would plummet to $1,770 yearly, on par with countries like Sudan or Senegal.
Australia, a neighbor of Papua New Guinea, is providing the country with around $600 million in foreign aid this year.
Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape admitted that even he could not get a direct read on how many people live in his country.
He estimated the number at “possibly 10 million, 11 million,” but also told The Australian that “I may be wrong.”
Mr. Marape does not see a spike in recorded population as important compared to the socioeconomic struggles the country faces.
“Whether it is 17 million, or 13 million or 10 million, the fact remains that my country’s formal economy is so small, job availability is so small, the resource envelope is so small, I cannot adequately educate, provide health care, build infrastructures, and create a law-and-order environment,” he told the newspaper.
Jeffrey Wall, a former adviser to the Papua New Guinea government, was skeptical of the high-end 17 million figure but noted the underlying economic trends were troubling.
“I suspect half are under 25 and almost zero get employment,” he explained, telling the Financial Times that the situation was a ticking “time bomb.”