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Suspicion & generosity: the funding challenges of the Croc Prize

Phil 2015PHIL FITZPATRICK

FUNDING the Crocodile Prize and the other smaller causes undertaken by PNG Attitude has always been vexed.

In the case of the latter the readers of the blog have proved to be remarkably generous. If the cause is seen to be just and important people are prepared to contribute to it.

Most of the contributions come from Australian readers. This is understandable because they are usually in a much better financial position that the average Papua New Guinean reader.

Nevertheless, there have been some generous donations from Papua New Guinea. In most cases Keith Jackson has always been prepared to add his own contribution, often substantial.

On the other hand the Crocodile Prize operates at a level well above all of the other causes. With its prize pool and operational costs, especially for the printing of the annual anthology, it needs serious money.

Because it is run by volunteers and deliberately does not seek to make any profit that can’t be turned back into the competition its finances have always been precarious. Every year when the competition begins the organisers have very little idea how it will fare financially.

Each year sponsors have to be approached and begged and cajoled into supporting it. There are only a couple of sponsors that consistently provide funds.

After the huge success of the first 2011 competition it was optimistically assumed that the road might be a bit easier but this was not the case. Perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the constant failure of both the Papua New Guinean and Australian governments to support the competition.

Some elements within government, such as individual members of parliament and, for quite a while, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby, have contributed, often in kind rather than cash, but neither government has seen fit to offer substantial support. This is difficult to understand.

After the 2011 competition the organisers were able to say, “Here is a very successful project with a proven track record and demonstrably huge benefit, how about supporting it?” This approach has always been met with vague promises, prevarication, false hope and final rejection.

One of the major problems has been fitting the competition into the seemingly ironclad and inflexible models the governments use for granting funds. The competition doesn’t seem to fit any of the complex criteria and the bureaucrats are determined not to think outside their narrow, process driven squares.

This would be half acceptable if they made this clear at the beginning but in typical public service style they seem unable to do this and as a consequence raise hopes only to dash them later on. For something like the Crocodile Prize there is a point where surety of funding is required but the government systems never allow this to happen.

The Australian government, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) seems to have evolved a negative attitude to projects that are successful. Why they have this aversion is mysterious.

Perhaps they believe that if something isn’t their initiative it is of no value? Another, more sinister, theory is that they don’t actually want anything to succeed. This is not as silly as it sounds.

The classic example in Australia is in indigenous affairs. The argument goes that ‘if all the problems are solved we will have worked ourselves out of a job; if we want to keep our jobs it’s best if we fail’.

It is hard to see how this might apply to DFAT but if you consider how much vested interest rely on DFAT contracts and the enormous amounts of money involved it makes more sense. Maybe there is an attitudinal fix to the theory at play.

Private sponsors are quite different. There have been few cases where such prevarication has occurred. In many cases the response has been, “Sure, how much do you want and where should we send it?”

Perhaps the easiest company to get on with in this respect has been Ok Tedi Mining Limited. The Papua New Guinea Chamber of Mines and Petroleum has always been consistently generous, as have Kina Securities and the Paga Hill Development Company.

Big companies like Oilsearch and Exxon Mobil, on the other hand, have never bothered to answer the organisers’ emails.

There have been a couple of other disappointments but this is inevitable. One of the most unexpected was the early response of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA).

They were very guarded and it was obvious they didn’t trust anything to do with Papua New Guinea and money. They imposed such impossible restrictions on their funding that the prize organisers eventually told them to forget it.

A similar experience was later had with the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby after Ian Kemish left.

A couple of years later - with a new president, Andrea Williams, and committee - the PNGAA story changed completely and it has been a generous and enthusiastic supporter ever since.

The response of the PNGAA and companies like Ok Tedi highlight the differences between government and private funding. With government it is a matter of dealing with highly suspicious public servants with an eye on their own careers and an aversion to making decisions, especially involving money.

With the private sector the decisions about funding seem to be much more personal, often relying on a decision by one person. If they can be convinced the funds are generally forthcoming.

There have been a couple of disappointments however. One of these involved Steamships Trading Company. They had been consistent and generous supporters of the short story prize for a while but in 2014, after repeatedly promising continued funding - at the last possible moment the company suddenly withdrew. This was a blow in more ways than just financial.

No reason was given for the withdrawal and the organisers were left scratching their heads. Some sort of personality clash or rift in relationships in Papua New Guinea was the best guess. Either that or it had something to do with the competition debacle that occurred in 2013. Fortunately an anonymous supporter stepped into the breach.

As we move into the 2016 competition nothing much has changed. Raising funds is still hard work. Ruth Moiam and Baka Bina are giving it their best shot. Any help that can be provided to them would be gratefully appreciated, especially of you work for a company that might offer help.

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