BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
WHEN THE KIAP NIGEL VAN RUTH was building the gaol at Baisu near Mount Hagen in the 1960s, he stretched hessian sacking on the frame of the outside walls and rendered it with his own concoction of cement and lime to produce a sort of fibro-sheet affect. It was weather-proof and worked quite well.
The same kiap is reputed to have jumped on a table during a particularly heated tribal meeting and threatened to lob the hand grenade that he was waving aloft into the crowd unless they calmed down.
I understand the hand grenade was actually a can of bully beef minus the label. I could be wrong; you could never tell with Nigel. He was later reprimanded, but the tactic worked on the day.
Both of these examples demonstrate what is commonly referred to as ‘improvisation’. There was a lot of it going on prior to independence and the kiaps had the method down pat.
Improvisation is the art of making do with what you’ve got; it should not be confused with mediocrity or second best.
Mediocrity is what happens in Papua New Guinea today – everywhere and in everything.
I’m involved with a Papua New Guinea company called Firewall Logistics, which carries out, among other things, social mapping and community affairs programs. The company is trying very hard to lift the standard of these activities.
Rather than seeing social mapping and community affairs as tiresome bureaucratic hoops to jump through, Firewall regards them as absolute necessities and valuable precursors to any resource or industrial development in Papua New Guinea.
The company believes that understanding and involving local people in a project from the very first day will go a long way towards avoiding the sorts of problems that occurred on Bougainville and are now occurring on the LNG Project, the Ramu Nickel Project and many other similar projects.
In the process of pursuing this aim one frequently encounters the view that ‘this is PNG mate; it doesn’t matter if it’s second best, no one cares anyway!’ What one might term 'the Richard Marles approach'.
This attitude pervades everything. It includes the quality of goods and services, environmental safeguards and occupational and health safety standards.
For me the attitude is epitomised by canned tuna. If you buy a can of tuna in a tradestore you’ll find inside a dark meat-like substance that is not fit to feed to a cat. ‘But who cares? They don’t know any better. People will eat it!’ The pity is, the stuff is canned in Papua New Guinea.
So it is not just the overseas companies who import their poor standards, be it pumping toxic crap into the sea or selling steel axes that break in half after a few chops, it is also local businessmen doing it. The government, although it will never admit it, simply stands by or is complicit too.
It is quite different to what Nigel Van Ruth was doing with his cement walls and, hopefully, fake hand grenade. He didn’t have too many alternatives. In this modern twenty first century better quality alternatives are freely available, even if they cost a bit more.
What Nigel was doing is labelled colonialism. What the companies, businessmen and government are doing is sometimes called neo-colonialism. The two concepts are poles apart and should not be conflated or confused. One is an imported pre-independence concept and the other is a distinctly home-grown phenomenon.
Papua New Guinea is referred to as a ‘third-world’ or ‘developing’ nation. Both terms are code for second best or inferior. If Papua New Guinean people want to progress they should take these negative approbations for what they are and demand quality for their future.