BRISBANE - Emma Wakpi’s recent commentary, ‘Foreign aid didn’t work. Then we started to look at tradition’, gave cause for PNG Attitude readers to reflect on the effectiveness of aid in Papua New Guinea’s nation building.
The subsequent discussion stoked an audience question I posed to a literary panel last week which I attended as part of a six-month My Walk to Equality writer’s fellowship generously sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company.
The panel, part of an event at the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art, was a collaboration between Griffith University’s Asia Institute and Griffith Review journal and was billed as a conversation between Jane Camens, Annie Zaidi and Salil Tripathi.
Jane Camens is co-editor of Griffith Review and founder of Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Inc, a regional network of authors and literary translators.
In the journal and on the panel, books by Annie (‘Dangerous Little Things: an account of turning political’) and Salil (‘Without Hindsight: we’re here because you were there’) were featured.
Annie is a contributor to the anthology ‘Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories’ (Harper Collins 2016) that was one of the inspirations for our own Papua New Guinean anthology, ‘My Walk to Equality’.
In the journal’s own words, the most recent issue of Griffith Review (number 59), published to coincide with the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, “showcases outstanding writers from 25 countries whose diverse voices shine light on enduring imperial legacies, and describe a present that is vibrant yet nuanced, familiar yet unexpected.”
This all proved a most satisfactory backdrop for my presence at the panel discussion – and for my question.
Wakpi’s article, canvassing factors underpinning the success or otherwise of development aid, referenced James Ferguson’s critique of Western donors, their ignorance of traditional social structures and the impact of this deficiency on program success.
Ferguson argued that disregard for a people’s established way of life was not only negligent but had dire consequences for program implementation.
Subsequently, the OECD’s execution of the ‘Paris 2005 Declaration against Poverty’ sought to steer aid delivery within developing countries through mutually reinforcing principles of ownership, alignment, harmonisation, managing for results and mutual accountability.
In PNG Attitude, subsequent reader comments discussed issues such as person-to-person contact, national political restructuring, compliance and cultural convergence and offered guidance as to how the Declaration ought to work in-practice.
However, it was a commentary by Stephen Charteris that resonated with my experience as a recent participant in what has been the 12-year journey of PNG Attitude in seeking to revive, develop and sustain a contemporary national literary culture for Papua New Guinea.
Charteris canvassed ideas of development priorities, strategies and outcomes and I must say these have been key terms in a process that, through the work of the MWTE Project, has given me a much better understanding of the role of donor and recipient governments in aid programs.
Citizen participation through PNG Attitude and its affiliates (Pukpuk Publications, the Crocodile Prize, My Walk to Equality) has long sought the stewardship of the Australian government in encouraging the Papua New Guinean government to take a more forward role in providing support for our nation’s aspiring, emerging and established writers, editors and publishers.
There are many reasons why this should be done not least among them the potential to effect nation-building and social change.
In late 2017, a well-placed staff member of Australian High Commission office in Port Moresby kindly explained to me the premise of Australia’s aid program.
In allocating funding, the official said, the priorities of the PNG government are given major consideration, respect and responsiveness.
I was told that ‘careful and long-term planning steer the Australian aid program budget in partnership and agreement with the PNG’ and that ‘funding is channelled primarily to large scale projects on multi-year timeframes’.
The official added that there is ‘an ability to move if an opportunity presents’.
Seasonally, we are reminded that that Papua New Guinea is a nation of story tellers. Orating stories, legends, fables and proverbs has been long embedded in the psyche of our people.
Bewildering it is then that this long established tradition, coupled with a much-voiced eagerness by scores of capable modern day indigenous writers, still sees PNG Literature overlooked as a development priority in the Australia-PNG aid relationship.
The ‘community owned and driven’ movements that Charteris’ describes are personified in the readers, writers and handful of organisations and philanthropists that participate in PNG Attitude’s vision of engaging all citizens across all levels to participate in nation-building through reading, writing and publishing PNG-authored literature.
The bureaucracy and conservatism of donor-recipient transaction is dampening down a lit fuse.
All that provides a very long prelude to the question I asked Annie Zaidi on the writers’ panel.
“What impact,” I began, “have donors - or funding from former colonial powers in India - had on developing the nation’s literary culture, and how effective have they been in including and elevating indigenous women writers’ voices.”
Annie - the journalist, writer, poet and playwright - expressed no direct experience with donor funding, this despite an absence of national Indian grants to writers.
She described that most funding applications for literary projects are sought overseas through agencies like publishing houses and universities.
Annie’s colleague, Salil Tripathi, said that this process itself is competitive, particularly through avenues in the United Kingdom and United States. Additionally, Annie acknowledged that she had been a recipient of a Chevening scholarship, which is actually funded by the UK government.
Speaking about the inclusion and elevation of indigenous women’s voices, Annie noted that Indian women are not actively provided with platforms to share their writing. The disproportionate ratio of dialect writers was identified as increasing the difficulty of circulating their work domestically and internationally.
She said it is the Indian women of the diaspora who have made an impact, getting their voice heard and drawing global attention to domestic issues, especially those faced by the women of India.
I was intrigued at this observation as it reflected my recent (so far unpublished) interview with TNC Pacific Consulting’s Dr Tess Newton Cain in which I commented on the role and potential of the Papua New Guinean diaspora as active participants in the PNG dialogue around daily issues, literary culture and women’s rights advocacy.
India and Papua New Guinea are nations of the Commonwealth which are experiencing the legacy of colonial rule. Both nations continue to have close relations with their former colonisers; Papua New Guinea in particular as a major aid recipient of Australia.
So, in light of Annie’s feedback and the perceived parallels with PNG’s contemporary literary culture, how might the PNG Attitude collective reassess its current approach national literature-building?
Do we stand by while a donor-recipient transaction continues to overlook demands to foster and nurture the talent of PNG’s writers, poets, playwrights and illustrators?
Or do we shift our focus away from the former-colonial power and pursue a dialogue with other Commonwealth (and non-Commonwealth) nations?
Or perhaps should we devote our our energy towards garnering more support from private organisations like Paga Hill Development Company to continue investing in writers, editors and publishers to encourage the PNG government to prioritise a national literary culture as key to nation building?
This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. The fellowship commenced in mid-March and will conclude at the end of September. Information and regular updates of activities provided by fellowship recipient Rashmii Bell may be found at https://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2018/03/paga-hill-fellowship-may-herald-a-png-literary-festival.html or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh