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Australia is losing in the Pacific. Here’s why.


"We share with our Pacific family culture, the principles of democracy and freedom, and these are things that are very important to the Pacific Island peoples” – Peter Dutton, Australian Defence Minister, Today

“Time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door” – Peter Dutton's bad joke about (a) sea level rise in the Pacific and (b) what he sees as his Pacific family’s lack of attention to punctuality, 11 September 2015

CAIRNS – It is my personal observation following 35 years in Melanesia that Australia has hopelessly missed the mark when it comes to development assistance, and it continues to do so.

The total fixation on trying to build the capacity of central and sub-national agencies to the exclusion of an equal focus on communities has sunk almost every initiative you can name.

The heart and soul of every place in Melanesia is the community and its land - not a government agency or a politician.

By ignoring this, we have cultivated a façade, not a functional system, which has failed to connect with communities at any level, despite protestations to the contrary. 

By attempting to make a public service in our own image we have simply demonstrated beyond all doubt that we do not understand Melanesia.

The Solomons has turned away from its traditional partner, Australia, because we do not understand how to include the most important social grouping - the key decision makers - in anything we have done. 

Accordingly, we are unable to facilitate meaningful results at the community level where it matters most.

I could produce mountains of pictures of failed infrastructure projects: health posts, school buildings police bases, water supply systems and many more.

They failed because we insisted on supporting governments and a public service mechanism that cannot staff these facilities and is not representative of communities or their wishes.

But Canberra cannot be told anything: there lies a bureaucracy and political elite not known for their humility. They operate a closed shop without ears to listen or eyes to see.

They also operate under the misapprehension that they know it all.

They need to go back to the drawing board, start listening, observing - and learning damn fast – if they are to have any hope of turning around the future of Melanesia and the many other Pacific Islands countries.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

That's the way it used to work back in the days of the kiap, Stephen.

The local villagers would talk to their luluai and tultul [clan and village officials] and the next time the kiap came on patrol, they would put their requests and ideas to him.

The kiap would then kick the options around at a village meeting and figure out how best to proceed and get the money to make whatever needed to happen.

It's a misnomer to think that kiaps always forced their ideas on villagers and, even if they did, they did it in full consultation with them.

After the kiaps left for the last time, the people had no one reliable to go to with ideas and requests.

After 1975 it was like a giant vacuum cleaner had sucked all the power into the provincial capitals and Port Moresby, which became places full of men with shiny shoes and growing beer guts.

Stephen Charteris

“Identifying and getting to those 'developmental leaders' is hard work which takes time. It also runs the risk of upsetting the status quo and the elites in power, which is somewhere our aid people are unprepared to go” - Philip Fitzpatrick

Philip, I agree with you. It does take time and, yes, it invariably upsets the status quo (that can be addressed in culturally acceptable ways), but if we are not prepared to go there, then let’s call our contribution for what it is, buying political influence and stop calling it aid.

I think Anna has defined the issues very well and I believe there is more than a strong case to put effort into bottom-up as well as the top-down models.

According to the World Bank, funding from all sources in 2019 for health in Papua New Guinea was USD$65 per capita.


If we reflect even for a moment on that statistic, the stark conclusion is until and unless communities, the natural centres of governance, are made part of the solution.

Until they have 'skin in the game' and responsibility for the outcomes they desire at their end of the value chain, there is no way forward.

This is the central tenet of my thinking arising out of more than three decades of observations at community level throughout this beautiful country.

By all means continue to strengthen the core, but also build foundations from the base to government systems and obtain the best of all worlds.

Kindin Ongugo

I once applied for a visa for my mother in-law to visit Australia. After 3 months I was still waiting for the outcome.

In those 3 months I called Australian High Commission in Moresby 5-6 times from Newcastle. Every call ended with me speaking to a lady with a PNG accent.

On my last call I was again put to the same lady. Once more I was told an outcome was still pending.

This time I begged to speak to her boss. She was at least professional enough to grant me my wish.

After couple of seconds a gentleman answered the phone at the other end. He had an Aussie accent. I started telling him my story in excitement.

He interrupted and asked me for the visa application reference number which I happily read out to him as I knew I had made some progress.

Almost immediately he told me what the problem was. The applicant needed to have a chest x-ray before a decision could be made.

The reason was that the applicant had stated that she would be attending a hospital while in Australia.

They could not contact her was because she did not put her PNG contact in the application.
Immediately I responded that the contact section of the application form was filled. And if they looked at it more closely there were 3 Australian contacts, a mobile number, landline and even an Australian government email.

The officer countered that saying it should be her PNG contact.

With this I had to educate him a bit. I told him that not everyone in PNG had formal contacts with phone numbers or email (the year was 2010).

For this reason I had to list my contact. If only they had just used the contacts listed on the application this delay would have been avoided weeks earlier.

I went further, telling him that the reason he was working in Australian High Commission in PNG was because he was a diplomat. I told him unfortunately he appeared to be deficient of some basic knowledge of the country he was working in.

If his office had contacted me using the contacts listed, I knew exactly how to get in touch with the applicant as I knew how the local informal communication network operated.

With this he said if I arranged for the applicant to have a chest x-ray and if the report was good he would issue a visa without delay. He was good enough to give me his name.

I obliged, went online and bought a ticket for the applicant. I called a close friend in a government office, begged him to walk over to the market and tell the applicant (it was the day she normally came to sell her crops) to go to Air Niugini office in Kimbe to pick up the ticket.

Next day she flew to POM and over to Pacific International Hospital (PIH) where she had an x-ray.

She was told to return at 8am the following morning as the x-ray was being reported to Cairns. At 8am next day she was given the report and immediately caught a taxi to the Australian Commission at Waigani.

At the gate she told the guards she had an important letter for the officer (she mentioned the name). The guards called reception and then spoke to the officer. She was allowed in and was met at reception by the gentleman.

She produced the report. The officer looked through and instructed the reception to grant the visa. Five hours later she boarded Air Niugini's 3pm POM-BRIS-SYD flight at Jacksons International Airport.

From speaking to the OIC at Visa Section at Aussie High Comm to the applicant arriving at Sir Kingsford-Smith International Airport in Sydney took 3 days.

From this experience my impression was and still is that Papua New Guineans have to overcome more hurdles to travel to Australia than citizens of other countries around the Asia-Pacific region.

I would like to say the kiaps were the real diplomats. They went with one goal and that was to develop the place which is now called The Independent State of PNG.

I will have to admit there are some brilliant Aussie officials in POM. One such person quickly identified an issue on my new passport at Jacksons and made it possible for me to travel to Cairns with 'officially' a wrong passport as the problem could be solved after arriving in Australia.

Philip Fitzpatrick

It's a good article Anna and you clearly identify where Australian aid programs in places like Papua New Guinea fall down:

"It is therefore important to heed the clear implication of robust political economy analyses of countries with poor governance and development outcomes; reformist drivers of change – those who deeply care about the well-being of their communities and who seek social justice for their country – will rarely hold formal authority and be in positions of power in contexts of endemic corruption.

"Development programs consequently need to be informed by an understanding of the vast difference that can exist between overt, legitimised leaders and covert, oftentimes embryonic, developmental leaders, whose status is not necessarily reflected in their formal positionality."

Identifying and getting to those 'developmental leaders' is hard work which takes time. It also runs the risk of upsetting the status quo and the elites in power, which is somewhere our aid people are unprepared to go.

Anna Gibert

This piece - and the comments made by other readers - nails the situation of aid in the Pacific perfectly.

I just wrote a blog on similar issue, but was nowhere near as incisive as Stephen:


Daniel Doyle

I largely staffed an education project with a team collectively proud of over 200 years of experience in PNG education.

Yet it was the kiddycrats from Canberra, whose experience of PNG largely consisted of little more than being chauffeur driven from the Holiday Inn to the High Commission, who invariably knew best.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Laura Tingle offers an acute analysis as always. This: 'After the Solomon Islands security pact and Lambie's Medevac deal, does the government have any political ammo left?'


Paul Oates

There is a total disconnection of power between those who have it and those who know how to use it.

This article effectively identifies the problem. Those of us who have seen both sides of the perspective could only agree with Stephen.

So how do you tell those who are part of the problem about the problem? Any suggestion of change instantly becomes a threat to their power and authority and influence with those politicians who actually are seen to make decisions.

It seems that only when there is an actual disaster will there be any movement in the anthill. Movement that is, to cover backsides with excuses and obfuscation of course, not to seek understanding.

Decades of writing to successive Ministers has only produced mountains of 'snow jobs' written by junior public servants who use the same excuses that haven't changed much in decades. Successive Ministers then blindly sign these useless pieces of paper and consign them to the garbage bin of history.

Humans have not evolved past the village method of achieving direct responsibility for their actions from those who they are responsible for.

The political class is totally blinded and deafened to anything but it's own ambition to be re-elected in order to support the money making schemes of their financial supporters.

Bernard Corden

Australia was founded by the brightest people in the country - and we haven't seen them since.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I've had some experience with these dunderheads in my social mapping endeavours Stephen (and before that as a kiap).

Trying to get any of them out of the Airways, Gateway, Crown Plaza, Stanley or Grand Papua except for short sorties, preferably in a chopper, is nigh on impossible.

They are one of the main reasons Australia screws up so badly in Melanesia.

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