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A lit fuse – but uncertain whether it'll be fireworks or a damp squib

Rashmii Bell
Rashmii Bell


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 anthologyWalking 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 or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh


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Rashmii Bell

My interview for 'Pacific Conversations' with TNC Pacific Consulting's Dr Tess Newton Cain has now been published:

Rashmii Bell

Thank you, Max.

Interesting points you've made, Phil. Thank you.

A few things I'd like to expand on:

• The MWTE team has sent an email (+ follow up) to PM O'Neill and his Executive Assistant, pitching the idea of a literary festival (under the MWTE Project) be included in the APEC Program. Emails were in January. To date, no response (lest acknowledgement of email receipt). I will note that the literary festival proposed is intended to cover all genres - for writers, editors, publishers and illustrators. Aspiring and established.

• It would make sense for the Australian High Commission to take more of a proactive stance on this issue. Considering the literary culture, especially developing writers (Australian and First Nations) is diverse and thriving (generally). I would have thought Australia's presence in PNG would encourage, in fact demand the same of PNG.
The irony being PNG Writers (from the PNG Attitude collective) invitation to and inclusion in Queensland literary festivals since 2016.

• It is a shame that to date, the Australian High Commission has not deemed MWTE Project as a "stand alone project" that they could endorse, fund and support. We are all well versed in the successful reach and steady progress of the Project - I won't elaborate further.

• The MWTE team is always open to respectful, constructive dialogue with all organisations and individuals willing to contribute to or provide sponsorship for a literary festival - so overdue and should take place in PNG in 2018.

Max Uechtritz

Thanks Rashmii and Philip for this clarity and insight into a vexed issue... and for being so relentless in your pursuit to make it all happen.

Philip Fitzpatrick

When we were running the Crocodile Prize for Literature Keith and I tried very hard to get the governments of both Australia and Papua New Guinea to support our endeavours.

We had some early success with the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby when Ian Kemish was the High Commissioner but after he left the response became decidedly lukewarm and reluctant.

We had absolutely no success with the government of Papua New Guinea. A few MPs came along to the awards ceremonies to gain some reflected glory but made no substantive contributions in kind or finance.

If you consider that one of us was a practised exponent of blarney and the other was a very successful public relations guru you can appreciate the strength of the opposition we encountered.

After several years of banging our heads against the brick walls that both governments put in our way we concluded that the only way forward was seeking sponsorship from private enterprise.

We had a couple of bad experiences there too with various companies, organisations and individuals seeking to exploit our efforts for their own interests. Generally, however, the experiences were positive.

However, one of the things we never really worked out was why the governments of both Australia and Papua New Guinea were so disinterested in supporting Papua New Guinean literature. Our best shot was assuming that they saw encouraging free thought as somehow dangerous to them.

We realised that personal ambition, greed and corruption were big drivers but could never really pin down how it all came together in such a negative way.

Rasmii’s article reminded me of those unsuccessful efforts of ours but also some of my experiences as a social mapper in Papua New Guinea. In particular, it reminded me of something called Co-cultural Theory.

This theory was introduced into the anthropological canon in the 1970s by cultural anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardener.

They had noticed that many cultural anthropologists working in the field usually only talked to the leaders of the cultures they were studying, very often just the adult males.

These anthropologists then went on to use their findings to represent the particular culture as a whole, leaving out the perceptions of women, children and other groups made voiceless by the cultural hierarchy. With feminist anthropologists the opposite sometimes happened. Holistic appreciations were only realised when male and female anthropologists partnered for such studies.

This was a phenomenon that I worked out for myself when doing social mapping in Papua New Guinea. It was also an approach that harked back to my days as a kiap. In what were largely patriarchal societies I tried to also garner opinion from the women and children, usually in an informal way so as not to upset the alpha males.

I think this mistake by cultural anthropologists in only talking to leaders is also what happens when countries like Australia are deciding where to target their aid money.

Rashmii alludes to this when she reports her discussion with staff at the Australia High Commission. They and the Papua New Guinean government are only interested in big, high-end infrastructure projects that have visible kudo value.

Co-cultural Theory has application over a wide range of interactions between different cultures, particularly those that represent relationships stemming out of previous colonial associations.

Leadership that owes its mores and standards to colonial experience is one such aspect.

Exploitation within cultures is another aspect where, for instance, those ripping off low paid workers often come from the same cultural group. This happens in many rural worker schemes currently in operation in Australia. It also happens in government, especially in Papua New Guinea.

Another aspect is co-cultural appropriation, where a dominant culture adopts elements of a minority culture and exploits it for its own benefit. The exploitation of the traditional Papua New Guinean bilum by overseas fashion houses is a case in point.

What Australia needs to do when considering where to target its aid in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere is talk to ordinary people as well as their leaders.

It is only then that groups like Papua New Guinean writers will find a voice and garner some government support.

Keith and I started off under the somewhat naïve assumption that this is part of what the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby is supposed to do.

We were mistaken. Thankfully, we worked that out fairly quickly. Otherwise the Crocodile Prize for Literature may never have happened.

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