LAST week we read Lindsay Bond’s story of the opening of three bridges worth K139 million at Eroro, Girua and Ambogo in Oro Province, built with the support of Australian aid, and yesterday we read of the death of a mother of eight children in Dr Kevin Pondikou’s searingly personal piece.
These articles brought a million thoughts to my mind of what wonders Australian aid could have brought to Papua New Guinea had more attention been focused on building roads and bridges to link rural areas and urban centres.
Australia spent millions of dollars on her colony prior to independence and continues to spend $500 million annually even today, but why has this aid money not transformed the lives of the rural masses scattered across remote and mountainous terrain and on islands separated by often treacherous seas?
The efficacy of Australian aid money on the lives of Papua New Guineans, especially in rural areas, has often been raised in PNG Attitude and remains a matter of contentious debate.
It brings forward related issues like how much of this aid money goes back to Australia in the form of contracts, company profits, consultants and procurement of Australian goods and services.
It is understandable that, for political, economic and security reasons, Australia has her own foreign aid priorities. However, as a political and economic powerhouse in the Pacific, her aid money should make colossal and sustainable impact in a recipient country like PNG.
In PNG, infrastructure such as roads and bridges is key to dismantling development obstacles and disparity, lopsided social services and opening up economic development opportunities.
In order for social services like health and education to cheaply, equitably and effectively reach the bulk of PNG’s population in isolated rural areas, roads and bridges are vital links.
The people of PNG know how to survive in this harsh environment, either with or without the presence of government.
They know how to get to the nearest health centre or market. They will carry a sick person long distances to get to the nearest health centre; they will paddle a canoe for many hours to get produce to market. They are born and bred to walk and paddle long distances no matter how severe the sun, wind or rain. It’s in their blood.
They have a natural ability to survive which serves them well, but even this does not allow them to overcome every disadvantage of being remote from the benefits of modern life.
Efficient road and sea links would solve many problems as well as opening up new business opportunities.
Of course, health and education, the two sectors that Australian aid concentrates on, are important. But how can these services reach the people and transform their lives if there is no efficient, low cost and reliable transport?
Take for example, a place like Karimui in Simbu Province, which is often described as ‘coastal’ in the highlands because of its unique condition for growing all kinds of crops like coffee, cocoa, coconut and betel nut but which has no road link with the rest of Simbu and PNG.
After almost 41 years of independence, this huge area of high economic potential and its 12,000 population are only reachable by which makes delivering health and education services to the people very expensive.
It costs an average of K6,000 to airlift just one sick person or pregnant mother from Karimui to Kundiawa. Air charters to deliver education services cost around the same.
If there was a road link, the K6,000 could provide access to health centres for 600 sick people. Motor vehicle hire would cost only K1,000 a return trip to Karimui to deliver educational materials and staff.
Moreover, Simbu as a province could change greatly because of the huge economic potential of Karimui.
In Karimui, Yehebi and many other places like them, there is no significant physical evidence of aid money; very little has trickled down to those whom aid is meant to benefit.
I am not advocating that all Australian aid to be concentrated on building roads and bridges for PNG but aid should create a rippling, continuing and monumental impact in PNG so that effective health and education services are available to all communities regardless of whether they are in rural areas or urban centres.
The $500 million of aid money Australia spends on PNG each year could have transformed the lives of the rural majority had it been concentrated on opening up the isolated rural areas to the outside world.
As far as PNG is concerned, no matter how much aid money Australia spends on health and education services, its impact in rural areas will continue to be insignificant compared to towns and cities because of the cost of service delivery.
If Australia is serious about its aid money making a sustainable transformation in the lives of the bulk of Papua New Guineans, it should be thinking seriously about roads and bridges.
Without solving this problem, equitable delivery of health and education services will remain as great challenges to Australia and PNG.