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Post-independence PNG – snake oil & the benefits of chaos

Inside the CrocodilePHIL FITZPATRICK

Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals by Trish Nicholson, Matador, Kibworth Beauchamp UK, 2015, 288 pp, ISBN: 978 1784624422.  Full colour version $A23.79 from The Book Depository Also available from Amazon Books, paper $US14.23, e-book $US7.73

IN the decades following independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea was awash with foreign advisers and consultants. Even the remote provinces attracted them like bees to a honeypot.

They brought with them minds and folios bulging with the latest whiz-bang management theories. Theories fully charged and ready to foist onto their unsuspecting hosts.

Which is ironic, because when Australia departed Papua New Guinea it left the new government with a set of simple, highly functional and efficient administrative systems. They were systems of tried and tested processes and routines with which the new nation’s public servants felt very comfortable.

These same public servants, however, suddenly found themselves on a seemingly endless merry-go-round of training courses, workshops and seminars. Ends were obscured by means and while the confused clerks and administrators struggled with the new systems the country slowly began to fall apart around them.

What this motley band of imported bureaucrats and their cronies in government managed to do in a few short years was turn the Papua New Guinean public service into a massive ball of impenetrable red tape and the resultant chaos has persisted since.

Along the way, a burgeoning cabal of predatory politicians and senior public servants discovered that chaos could be a very handy condition if one wanted to rort and corrupt the system for personal benefit. Chaos thus became self-perpetuating and the fate of the nation was sealed.

For most of the advisors and consultants who come to Papua New Guinea today there is no sense of commitment. Most of them are on short-term contracts and can push their various wheelbarrows with total disregard for future consequences.

Lack of commitment is a wonderfully liberating thing. If you throw in the chance to visit exotic places while adding an impressive addendum to your curriculum vitae, it can be a dream opportunity.

Trish NicholsonIt was into this bureaucratic quagmire that Trish Nicholson (pictured) stepped in 1987.

She was fresh off an aeroplane from Scotland, where she had worked in regional government and administrative training.

When she arrived in Sandaun Province her Papua New Guinean work visa had still not been approved and her employer, the provincial government, didn’t technically exist, having been arbitrarily suspended following an outdated audit by the national government in Port Moresby.

Fortunately she had an inbuilt resilience and a well-developed sense of humour, both precious commodities in Papua New Guinea.

Trish Nicholson ended up staying in Vanimo for five years, which is a long time for an expatriate in one place.

In those days, as she optimistically observed, it was two steps forward and one step backwards, a progression of sorts if you ignore the stresses and trauma that sort of thing causes.

These days it is more like two steps forward and three backwards, so she can rightfully claim to have made some headway.

For people with an interest in Papua New Guinea, the years between 1975 and the advent of the internet and social media in the early 2000s is something of an historical void.

Unless you were regularly travelling to the country, it was hard to know what was actually going on there. The Australian and international media just weren’t interested. The author’s chronicles of her ups and downs manages to fill in some of the detail.

There are no big surprises. The country was just as whacky then as it is now. The frustrations were the same and the only relief came from the friendliness of the people. Bad things were done and good things were done. Remarkably the author managed to come away relatively intact and optimistic.

It is pertinent to note that prime minister Peter O’Neill has just announced that, starting next year, he is going to ban expatriate consultants and advisers from working in government in Papua New Guinea. There are a lot of sceptics who think this is a mistake but I think he will persist.

Among other things the prime minister thinks they are incredibly expensive and he suspects that some of them might be spying on his government.

Most of all, however, he thinks their existence is making Papua New Guineans lazy.

He thinks that senior public servants bring in consultants when they can’t be bothered doing the job themselves.

What he is saying is that consultants and advisors are, in effect, doing more damage than good simply by being there. And they have been there a long time of course.

This is easy to relate to if our experience in running the Crocodile Prize is anything to go by.

Apart from a few blessed individuals, Papua New Guineans are more than happy to stand by when someone else will do the hard work for them. In Joe Hockey’s words they are happy to be leaners rather than lifters.

I’m not sure that Peter O’Neill is wholly right is ascribing it to simple laziness; there seems to be more to it than that, something more cultural. It is a topic that has been chewed over for some time without resolution.

The author inadvertently supports the prime minister’s view in a number of ways, not least when she observes that large amounts of so-called development in Papua New Guinea seems to be focused on the constant invention of new systems and procedures.

Trish Nicholson also makes the interesting and self-obvious point that women in Papua New Guinea are largely a wasted resource when it comes to development.

Inside the Crocodile is a leisurely travelogue with a serious edge and it should be of special interest to people with past and present experience in Papua New Guinea.

As I have suggested, it also places a timely light on the whole question of the efficacy of overseas aid and the role of consultants and advisors in delivering it.

There are a few little glitches: Mount Hagen is in the Western Highlands, not the Southern Highlands, and when referring to the trading company Burns and Philip I’m sure the author knows it should be Burns Philp.

I was also amused by her spelling of kalabus as kalabooz, maybe they say it that way in West Sepik kwik taim pisin.

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