NZ based author has great hope for development of PNG
The author of 'Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea journals', a book about her time working in development in PNG, says the one-size-fits-all approach must be dispensed with in the country.
A New Zealand-based author of a book about her time working in development in Papua New Guinea says the one-size-fits-all approach must be dispensed with in PNG.
Trish Nicholson's book 'Inside the Crocodile', which was released last year, documents her five year-stint in remote West Sepik province.
Ms Nicholson was contracted to the World Bank to carry out Institution-building throughout the provincial administration in the late 1980s.
She spoke to Johnny Blades who asked her about the challenges of development work in PNG, particularly as an expat.
TRISH NICHOLSON: The first thing you have to do is to listen and to see what's going on, and to get people's confidence. I mean, they've been there a long time, you know. The development worker who is coming in is a greenhorn, so you can't just suggest you plug in this solution or plug in that solution, because it doesn't work. It has to be things that they recognise, that's going to be helpful to them. Even if it's something new, there needs to be something that links to their known experience.
JOHNNY BLADES: Some of the things in your book, in terms of the work you were doing, it's very much relevant development challenges today. What are your impressions about how those sort of things have come?
TN: Well one of the reasons I wrote the book really was because when I was taking up writing and again and surfing around the web I found some blogs and so on about PNG and I discovered that life for ordinary people in remote areas especially like in Sandaun, or West Sepik, hasn't changed a great deal. But life in Moresby has transformed - well, depends who you are in Moresby of course - this is one of the important points. But in Sandaun for example, very little has changed for ordinary people.
JB: How did it feel being an expat coming into the Sepik culture, and a woman, at that?
TN: Well, I was coming from a background of social anthropology so I was tuned to things being different and I knew for example being a woman as well that one of the first things I had to do was find a woman ally, so that I had somebody I could talk to and say, look, am I wearing anything that's going to be offensive, am I saying things that might upset somebody or get me into trouble? So you do need a confidant. But funnily enough, people who had trouble with me being a woman were mostly expats. But the Papua New Guineans, they recognised that I was working and they accepted me as an honorary male, which meant I had to behave with respect but confidence, and expect that I would be taken as seriously as a man would. And they accepted me, they accepted that I was different.
JB: You obviously found something magical about PNG. There's a line in your book about how in PNG miracles can come from chaos, is that part of that magic of PNG?
TN: Well, in a way it is, yes. I was thinking at the time when I wrote that about the fact that when there's chaos you have the opportunity to do something unusual that might succeed. Whereas in the daily routine, you want to do something unusual, 'oh you can't do that, of we've never done that before', you know. Where there is chaos there are openings and opportunities. The difficulty is often maintaining it afterwards. But also, it's called the land of the unexpected, although I call it the land of surprises, and it really is. Not just the whole country but Sandaun province is so varied: all the different nuances of culture, different ways of doing things, different languages, amazing landscapes and the contrast in landscapes, you never know what you are going to find, going to a new place. And you can't depend on anything. The power can go out for a couple of days. The plane doesn't land. Someone doesn't turn up. Everything is totally uncertain. But if you keep a sense of perspective, that means that you have a whole series of little triumphs during the day: you know, you find a phone that works - oh that makes your day! You find they've got flour in at Steamies (Steamships general store) - 'oh great, yes get down there'! So it depends how you look at it. But your day can be filled with little triumphs.
JB: Do you have any hope for development, as it were, in PNG? Are ordinary people going to be able to participate in livelihoods, get basic services?
TN: Well, there's not a silver bullet. But I have hope because I know there are so many capable, willing and dedicated people in PNG who want to improve the lives of themselves and everyone around them. So I mean that's the biggest hope. But one of the big problems is the leadership. But I have a couple of suggestions that I think would improve the way development is done, from my own experience. One of them is the use of consultants. Because I honestly don't see the value in a bunch of consultants in Port Moresby who don't go out to the districts, pontificating as to what should be done, and sending out yet more pieces of paper, forms and systems. The way I worked was difficult but I think it was far more effective for everyone concerned. I was part of the administrative structure. So I was a senior administrator. I couldn't boss anyone around, except for my own team. They wouldn't have let me anyway. But it meant I had to work by persuasion and by convincing people, and that I had the same conditions and the same problems that my colleagues had to work with. So I think that's a much better way of using expatriates. And my other thing was about developing districts and giving... we were trying at that time, which was government policy, to strengthen districts. I was training a cadre of district managers and giving them some resources. PNG is so varied that I don't see that centralising everything is going to work. I really would like to see far more devolution to districts, at local level. There needs to be safeguards, certain standards that need to be met such as the treatment of women and participation of women. But within that I would like to see training and assistance and example given at district and below district level, and the funds given for them to do what they need to do.
Inside the Crocodile was released by Troubador Publishing and is available for sale online.
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