GEOFF WINESTOCK | Australian Financial Review
UNTIL A FEW YEARS AGO, Genevieve Nelson, 30, spent several months a year travelling alone in Papua New Guinea overseeing development projects for the Kokoda Track Foundation, the aid agency she helped start a decade ago.
Recently, as the security situation has worsened and after she was held up by thugs on the track, she has started taking a male guide/guard.
But her readiness to accept these risks is one mark of the toughness and determination Nelson has learnt in a career arc which has moved from an undergraduate psychology degree to a PhD in development policy and now a crucial role running one of the few aid agencies focused on Australia’s nearest neighbour.
Nelson’s influence is at work both here in Australia, where she is trying to raise awareness and cash for the huge problems facing PNG, and also on the other side of Torres Strait, where she fights a constant battle against poverty, violence and corruption.
She had no family or other connection to the Kokoda story until she signed up for an undergraduate leadership program that sent her along the track.
What she saw changed her life. She switched university courses to focus on development and now has to combine the roles of fund-raiser and development project manager.
The foundation’s work includes paying village teachers, agricultural aid and health programs, including one called Krappers for Kokoda, which builds self-composting eco-toilets to reduce disease.
Nelson’s organisation also provides scholarships to young people from Manus Island, and she is appalled by the Rudd government’s new plan to shift asylum-seeker boat arrivals there and elsewhere in PNG for processing.
The Kokoda track was the most excruciating thing I had done in my life. We had evacuations along the way. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. But I came out at the end a totally different person.
Something happened on that crossing. I knew my life would end up in PNG somehow. I knew that I would do whatever it took, whether that meant continuing with psychology or going to study something like medicine.
In PNG, women are oppressed very significantly. Women spend hard, long days out in the garden. It is their job to provide food and look after the family. Women suffer extremely bad domestic violence levels. I have seen it in many communities.
As a young woman, going in and meeting chiefs and elders was really challenging. It took years and years and years, telling them stories about what can happen if they send their daughter to school, she can grow up and bring back to the community.
It’s about having trust in relationships that sometimes will be broken. You rely on very corrupt people still giving you their endorsement.
You might know very well that they are mis-spending government funds. But we will never pay bribe money. We would rather sit it out and wait the time that is necessary.
The kids talk about this full circle. They don’t just talk about graduation and going about their lives. They talk about graduating at the highest level possible, getting a job, so that they can repay mum and dad and come back to the village.
There’s a business element to what I do. I never thought [that] was going to become such a big part of my life. It’s tough. We are constantly having to come up with new ways to sell our story.
There have been some great mentors, like Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision. We talk very often. He says to keep relying on stories. Life is about sharing stories. We don’t like to play on guilt. Words like “shame” don’t tend to resonate with people.
We don’t believe that PNG has the capacity to process a high number of asylum seekers. I think there will be conflict, high levels of conflict. I don’t think people will stay settled in Manus.
If people start making their way to Port Moresby, whether it is to find a job or for housing or to take that next step to Australia, which would not be that hard to do, they are going to be confronted with enormous issues.
I did empathise with Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech. I have seen the oppression of women and sexism at its worst. I think we are only at the beginning of change. I think there have been clear examples of misogyny in Australian politics during Gillard’s time in office and I would probably have called it as well.
I have thought of giving up often. The reality of my world is you go through ups and downs. A down is getting a threatening call from a public servant in PNG wanting some piece of the action. An up is getting a letter from a village that has had a teacher for 12 months and is thanking us.