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The value of the outside view: we observers also learn

Phil Fitzpatrick recent
Phil Fitzpatrick


TUMBY BAY - I’ve written a lot about Papua New Guinea over the years. I’ve also written a lot about Aboriginal Australia.

My writing has been as an observer and sometimes as a participant, but it has never been as a Papua New Guinean or an Aboriginal Australian because I am neither of those people.

This fact has occasionally been used to criticise what I write and I admit that such an argument has relevance.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a Papua New Guinean or an Aborigine. All I can do is use what I see and hear, and guess what it feels like.

Some people might say otherwise, but I don’t think this invalidates what I write.

I am well aware, perhaps more than most Australians, how oppressive has been the treatment of Aboriginal people.

I have also seen how difficult it has been for many Papua New Guineans to deal with the sudden changes in their lives brought about by colonialism and modernity.

I have tried to offer cautious and measured advice while at the same time always conscious of being an outsider.

And I recognise that sometimes it’s difficult not to come across as superior or arrogant.

For many years I worked with a tribal group in Australia’s Western Desert. I travelled with the elders and they showed me their country and told me things about it that they didn’t tell their own children.

They could see how the old ways were breaking down and didn’t trust their children with the information.

Much later, when those elders had all died, I went out into the country with their now grown up children to help them direct mining companies about where they could drill and where they could not drill.

In the process I discovered I knew a lot more about the country than those elders’ children. When we came to a place where the mining company wanted to drill those children would turn to me and ask whether it was alright.

I found this sad. Those old men should have trusted their children and passed on their secrets.

I’ve recounted this story to illustrate that an outsider’s view can sometimes be important and shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.

I’ve had similar experiences in Papua New Guinea.

As a kiap I recorded a lot of information in patrol reports and elsewhere. I also remember many things I was told by people long since dead: significant legends, customs no longer observed and skills that are long lost.

In the Star Mountains, for instance, I know where to get suitable stone to make axes, places where they can be ground and to a limited extent the methods of manufacture.

Many Papua New Guineans might think this is useless information when they can go into a hardware shop and buy a shiny new steel axe (or a chainsaw).

Maybe it is useless, but I still think it’s worth knowing.

The point is that, as an observer, it is something I know that many of the descendants of the people who showed me these things might not now know.

In that sense I think it is short sighted to dismiss the views of outsiders as irrelevant simply because they don’t have the lived experience of being you or your fellows.

While I can appreciate the annoying feeling of being preached to by outsiders who don’t understand you, I also think that the way many observers have been cowed by political correctness to the extent that they are uncomfortable expressing a view about something not their own is very sad and counterproductive.

It may just be that those outsiders are not intent upon denigrating you or your people and culture but are genuinely trying to be helpful.

Humble advice delivered by someone with no ulterior motive no matter where they come from can sometimes be immensely valuable.

It can also be utter claptrap not worth worrying about.

What is important is to listen, be polite and think about what they say.


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Garry Roche

In response to Phil I would suggest that perhaps any criticisms of PNG that we do have will be better received if it is clear that we do also see the good in PNG and also acknowledge the good that others have achieved.

I personally think that PNG Attitude does achieve a balance between the negative and the positive, but it is an issue that has to be noted.

The current social and political scene in PNG has given rise to plenty of comment that has been generally somewhat negative.

World media seems likewise to have become more negative and complaining about almost everything.

Perhaps at times our blogs also might be judged to be coming from “whingeing expats” or “whingeing elites”.
What response can a writer or commentator give to the allegation that she or he is simply a ‘whingeing expat” or a “whingeing elite”?

Some of the “whingeing” (complaining) may arise from a genuine concern for the country. The complaining may arise from an awareness of how things could be much better.

In my opinion one needs to keep in mind a basic question, namely “What do I want to achieve by my criticisms or complaints?”

There may be more than one justifiable reason for being critical. Do I just want to let off steam? Do I simply want to expose corruption? Do I hope to inspire efforts to improve the situation? Do I simply want to draw attention to poor service? Do I just want to express my frustration at the deterioration of services? Do I just want to honestly air my opinion?

In addition it will certainly be useful to ask the questions “How will my complaining be received and perceived by the people living in the country? How can I make my complaint most effective?”

A complaint raised out of genuine concern for people may in fact be interpreted by some locals as a biased or racist comment.

A complaint that exposes corruption may be met by hostility by those who are benefiting from corruption, but this does not negate the need to expose the corruption.

Some PNG based anti-corruption campaigners may be genuinely very happy that somebody from outside is speaking out. A complaint that seems to lack objectivity may be simply ignored.

In my own opinion the Churches should be in the forefront in fostering honesty and exposing corruption. Yet at times the Churches seem to be caught between their reliance on Government funding for health and education projects on the one hand, and on the other hand their obligation to speak against corruption.

NGO personnel may be in a similar dilemma. They may see the problem but at the same time be reliant on some Government funding for survival.

Some individuals may feel that they can act more effectively by challenging officials person-to-person rather than speaking out publicly against an individual. We do not always know to what extent some leaders have tried to battle corruption in a more private person-to-person way.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke. (1770)

“Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.” William Lonsdale Watkinson. 1907. (Apparently this is also an old Chinese proverb).

Keeping quiet in such times is the wise thing to do, for it is an evil time. Amos. 5.13 (Some would interpret Amos as being sarcastic !)

Taking action or lighting a candle? Can we point to failures and endeavor to be encouraging at the same time? Can we see the good amidst the corruption and the decline of public services? Can we continue to see and proclaim the many good things happening in PNG and at the same time not close our eyes to the many difficulties.

As said already, perhaps any criticisms of PNG that we do have will be better received if it is clear that we do also see the good in PNG and also acknowledge the good that others have achieved.

Paul Oates

The Scottish poet Robert Burns put your thoughts into his own words:

Scottish dialect: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!"

English: Oh would some power the gift give us, To see ourselves as others see us.

Simple: I wish for a power to give us this gift: Being able to see ourselves the way other people see us.

Over the years I have volunteered many offers of help and assistance to those in PNG. 'But answer came there none'.

Is it because those to whom the offer was made think I'm being superior and patronising? Is it because some may feel inferior in having to accept advice and helpful suggestions? I don't know.

It hasn't stopped me offering to volunteer to help were I can yet perhaps I would be better sitting on the sidelines and just accepting that my experience and training are of no use or help to anyone?

Sometimes I wonder like Phil, whether our altruistic motives are either being misread or whether we are being lumped in with those who wish to exploit and steal.

Then again, it has been said that Baby Boomers are the first generation that listened to their parents and now have to listen to their children.

Perhaps we are just caught, as Kipling said: 'Betwix and between'?

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