This article has been previously published (in 'Quadrant' and the PNG 'National') but richly deserves another airing. John Fowke has devoted 50 years to Papua New Guinea, and makes a plausible case that Australia is ‘getting it wrong'. This extract is reproduced with John’s permission, and you can also download the whole article [see below] - KJ
It is a characteristic both of AusAID and its partners - the private consultancies that plan and execute projects - that the word ‘memory’ is not in their vocabulary…. In fact the whole sisterhood/brotherhood of the aid industry, the departmental bureaucrats and the consultancies concerned, is collectively very quiet about what it does. This begs the obvious question: why?
Australians in general together with the breed described in the media as ‘Pacific Specialists’ really don’t understand just how different PNG society is from that which occupies Australia. The ‘Pacific Specialists’ upon whose advice aid programs delivered in PNG are based obviously draw from a Western matrix for their ideas, not only because this is usually the only basis they have, but also because it is the unstated but underlying objective of all these projects to Westernise the recipient society in some measure.
With only a superficial understanding of the groups of people they are working with it is natural that engagement and achievement also are superficial, together with results. PNG is a highly convoluted maze both in a physical and a conceptual sense. Nevertheless, there is a way into this maze, and it involves knowledge of both the culture and the language of the people targeted. An ability engendered by the interest and initiative needed to move freely and without fear in street-side and village society; to speak the lingua franca as it is spoken by the people.
To be accepted and welcomed as a friend by ordinary Papua New Guineans. Whilst the remnants of the old Australian School of Pacific Administration may have informed the early development of ANU’s School of Pacific Studies a continued offering of courses helpful to those of a mind to take up the Pacific challenge (if such people there are) is entirely lacking so far as this writer is aware. More’s the pity. The lack is so obvious, manifest in any encounter with a young Australian DFAT official or Australian project-consultant.
The writer has often had cause to feel angry at the bland and comfortable assumption that you can take a thirty-year-old MBA from a teaching position in some Godforsaken TAFE College in country Victoria and confidently put him in charge of producing a relatively complex set of results in a rural setting in PNG. Just watching these young men and women smiling uncertainly and speaking very slowly in what they imagine to be a form of broken English comprehensible to their little captive audiences is enough to make ones hair turn white.
On the other hand it is just as aggravating to be present in a hotel largely taken over for an Australian-funded police seminar, and to find that whilst the PNG police officers attending the seminar socialise together in the bars and bistro areas, the Aussie consultants presenting the seminar arrogantly dine separately in the hotel’s high-cost restaurant. Insulting enough in a Western setting, in Melanesia where the sharing of food is the basis for all meaningful interaction this sort of behavior is both outrageous and provocative. The writer has been witness to many such instances of the inability or unwillingness of Australian advisors and consultants to engage at a personal level.
‘Getting it wrong in PNG’ by John Fowke. The article was published in ‘Quadrant’ in December 2006 and in the PNG ‘National’ in January 2007.