ADELAIDE – Emma Wakpi’s excellent essay, ‘Foreign aid didn’t work. Then we started to look at tradition’, deals with the specific problem of finding a way to deliver aid within a given cultural context in order to achieve real and lasting benefits.
In doing so, the author has pointed to the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to international efforts to bring the benefits of modern civilisation (I use this term advisedly) to the so-called developing world.
The elephant in question is culture, and the associated persistence of systems of belief, thinking and living that are not inherently compatible with those of what we habitually describe as western civilisation.
Culture impacts much more profoundly upon how we humans see the world than is commonly understood. I confess to having only fairly belatedly come to understand this rather important point.
Typically, we humans as children are inculcated with a whole set of values and ideas about the world that originate in the lived experience of previous generations. These we tend to uncritically accept as reflecting objective reality, even when this is invariably wrong.
In turn, this leads us into potentially grave error in developing an understanding of the world around us and, especially, in interpreting the ideas, motivations and actions of those who do not share our cultural background.
The much vaunted multiculturalism of places like the USA, Canada and Australia is, in practice, a large scale social experiment based upon the idea of cultural convergence whereby, to quote the USA's national motto, e pluribus unum (out of many, one).
There is some real evidence that cultural convergence is real and achievable, but it does bring with it a good deal of potential for misunderstanding, tension and conflict. Hence, the USA's continuing problems with things like immigration and law enforcement as it pertains to people of non-Caucasian origin.
This is not just a problem for the USA, as the recent troubles in places like Britain, France and Germany have demonstrated all too graphically.
Given this context, it is very important for both aid givers and receivers to be able to freely and openly acknowledge the impact of the cultural assumptions that underpin how that aid will be or ought to be used.
Thus, the priorities as perceived by the giver may be greatly at odds with those of the receiver. Sorting out why this is the case seems likely to be the key to making sensible use of aid funds. This requires a level of honesty and clarity in the transaction that, it seems, often may not be present.
Right now, Papua New Guinea is going cap in hand to China seeking aid. In doing so it is dealing with a culture vastly schooled in extreme political subtlety, not to say deviousness.
I mean no disrespect to Papua New Guineans generally when I say that political subtlety is not a cultural strong point for them. In fact, a certain disarming directness tends to be more a feature of traditional cultures in PNG than many other places in this world.
For this reason, despite Emma's wise and insightful words, there are reasonably grounds to fear that PNG's dealings with its new great and powerful friends may not work out as they believe or intend.
Certainly, this has been the pattern elsewhere in the world when developing nations have sought to do deals with other great powers.
Australia is hardly exempt from this observation either, given its own relationship with the USA.
We can only hope that PNG's diplomats are alive to the issues raised in this forum and so guide their political masters wisely.