I GOT my first lesson in lateral thinking and innovation from Ross Allen, the Assistant District Commissioner at Mount Hagen in 1967-68.
Ross was one of those people who was difficult to categorise. On the one hand he frowned on my habit of wearing suede, elastic sided, desert boots and rolled down walk socks instead of polished brogues, but on the other hand, especially where it mattered, he had decidedly liberal views.
The lesson came in his innovative use of district development funds. On his advice I applied for funds to build a road that I had already completed using free kalabus labour and help from the local villagers who would benefit from its construction. They had done the job with simple spades and shovels.
When the funds arrived we bought a Massey Ferguson 135 tractor and trailer. This was despite the fact that the funds were earmarked for labour, not capital expenditure.
With the help of that little tractor, we built and maintained a few more roads. Later, using the same formula, we secured two more tractors.
The District Commissioner knew exactly what we were doing but looked the other way. He had probably taught Ross these techniques in the first place.
This kind of lateral thinking and innovation was not uncommon in pre-independent Papua New Guinea. Just about every kiap worth his salt maintained a ‘slush’ fund with which to do good works.
This fund was generally tucked away in the back of the station safe. It comprised money from diverse sources.
Money saved by bringing projects in under budget was never given back. Other funds came from things like ‘unofficial’ entrepreneurial endeavours like back-loading empty charter aircraft with vegetables from the station garden. These were sold in the district headquarters.
When the Kennecott geologists working on the Ok Tedi discovery packed up their camp at Olsobip they left behind a heap of groceries, so we sold them through our ‘unofficial’ trade store and used the money to buy a lawnmower. Ol kalabus troimwe sarip na bihainim lawnmower tasol.
Nowadays, of course, this sort of thing would be impossible. Lateral thinking and innovation, like everything else, has become corrupted.
District development funds still get diverted but the money ends up in someone’s pocket rather than being spent on something useful.
Because everyone in an organisation is now regarded as potentially corrupt, stringent controls and reporting on funds are strictly and necessarily enforced.
As a result lateral thinking and innovation have become virtually impossible.
The old kiap system relied heavily on trust and honesty. That doesn’t exist anymore in most organisations.
Not only do the bosses fear that staff will steal money they also fear they will manipulate the use of funding to enhance their own prestige and prospects.
This means that a major consideration in awarding funds to particular projects and causes is how the project or cause might enhance reputations.
Many worthwhile projects never get funded.
While organisations such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) or the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have specific functions designed to help worthy causes. the people in those organisations are not so much looking forward at the benefits such a project or cause might create but backwards to see whether their support will pay dividends in terms of prestige and other kudos, either personally or for the organisation.
When you apply for funds the question they don’t ask but which they mean to, is, “What’s in it for me and my boss?”
This means that an organisation set up to, say, help women achieve equality, is not necessarily interested in women achieving equality but in increasing and maintaining its own prestige.
So if you add all these things, the individual and corporate motives, and it is easy to see why neither DFAT nor the UNDP is interested in funding the distribution of something like the My Walk to Equality anthology.
Now, if there were a bunch of old kiaps running these outfits….