Let’s address the future & not the past
AUKUS indicates Australia has opted for war

Historical aid model has failed. Here’s why

Strong villager
'The Strength of the Clan' (Microsoft Bing image creator from instruction by KJ)


CAIRNS - I have not read Gordon Peake’s book, Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation, but find his observations as reported by Professor Stephen Howes in his article, Confessions of an Adviser, most instructive.

Peake’s comments about Bougainville resonate loud and clear. In my view, they could just as validly be applied to any province in Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

If that is a fair call, and I would argue that it is, what does it tell us about the stated aim of Australia’s new aid program?

I think Peake is correct when he ascribes the disconnect between PNG’s clans, land and culture and the activities of those responsible for the implementation of nation-building.

PNG is a country comprising more than 6,000 clan groups, 836 languages and 22 provinces.

Absent from this description is the fact that more than 90% of the land and much of PNG’s productive waters are under the unalienable ownership of clans - tightly knit communities that have maintained their culture, language and independent way of life for centuries.

At least 85% of the population of nine million lives on clan land that has been passed down through generations and is governed by traditional practices.

The traditional clan ownership of land is a potent social influence.

While land is often described as communal, in reality decisions affecting allocation and use are in the hands of traditionally powerful families.  Land is rarely occupied successfully without their approval.

For the foreseeable future, the majority of the population will remain dependent upon clan land to build houses, grow food, raise their children and make a little money.

The use of clan land comes with obligations.

In keeping with time honoured practice, everyone who receives permission to use land is bound to acknowledge the traditional custodial line by way of feast giving and other actions of reciprocity.

For most rural and urban dwellers, meeting traditional obligations to maintain access and continued tenure for their family and descendants is the central theme of their lives.

Maintaining land rights is a lifelong obligation that places public servants under unrelenting pressure to meet obligations from clan members.

It is not unusual for public servants to be more occupied with this than they are with government business.

Peake reports in his book that the Bougainville government - responsible for delivering education, health, law and order and infrastructure services - is ‘broke'.

The same could be said for the provincial administrations of the 21 other provinces.

Given this, the machinery of government, particularly at local government level where services are delivered, has little impact on the lives of the majority of rural people.  

Nearly five decades after independence most rural communities remain without reliable access to essential services.

So where does this leave our understanding of government, governance and services delivered for all in the best interests of the common good?

In truth, our vision of a government agency staffed with people, who without prejudice, fear or favour deliver value for money outcomes for the majority of the population, is magical thinking. 

Further, it is a laughable notion that cash-strapped authorities are able to deliver these services in the absence of any significant input from those whose lives they wish to improve.

The model of service delivery instigated since before independence is the creation of a foreign power and, like the introduction of the cane toad to Queensland, has proven to be inappropriate for the environment.

One flaw was to assume that the powers of public servants working through an alien model carries authority in a customary setting.  It does not.

Many of those who work in government realise this and understand that, for practical purposes, their roles amount to little effect in the absence of community participation and ownership. 

It is not surprising therefore that Peake reports that it “was difficult to find someone (of like mind) to work with” and “there wasn’t any interest in facilitating effective government.”  

I would ask, ‘effective’ from whose perspective, in who’s world view?

Peake also notes that water and sanitation projects seem to fare better in terms of impact and effectiveness. This should not surprise since these activities deliver benefits that communities want.

Peake wonders, if independence is unlikely to make a material difference to the lives of Bougainvilleans, why then did 98% vote for it?

There are a number of reasons why Bougainvilleans may have voted as overwhelmingly as they did.

The land and resources of their ancestors is their inheritance, and retaining control is a perceived right.

When tragic consequences ensue from the immigration of people from other regions to work on foreign owned plantations and mines, people learn that decisions on such matters should be theirs.

When the impacts of a foreign owned mine include permanently poisoned land, rivers and reefs, there is strong desire to control such developments.

When the royalties from mining are paid to a government hundreds of kilometres distant across the sea, the same government that mismanaged your land, then cutting ties and attaining independent speaks for itself as a sine qua non.

So where does all this leave Australia’s stated aim to focus aid policy on building effective accountable states that can sustain their own development?

I do not pretend to know the answers, but I do know that riding roughshod over traditional societies in PNG or the Solomons in the interests of mining is not one of them.

And I do know the historical top-down, one size fits all model that has existed for almost 50 years has failed the majority of the population

There is a need for clans to play a valuable role within the totality of nation-building.

There is a need for them to contribute to the services they desire; services the government cannot deliver within its own resources. 

Reciprocal nation-building partnerships of this kind may very well provide economic opportunity, engage youth and strengthen service delivery across multiple locations.

As a starting point I trust the powers in Canberra will listen more earnestly to what the genuine stakeholders have to say before launching into another generational round of activities that history records can result in more harm than good.


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Paul Oates

A few years ago we overnighted in Paris and while paying the hotel bill the next morning, were also stung by the requirement to pay a ‘City Tax’ for the use of the ‘City’s’ resources and facilities.

Could this be a way of addressing the issue of the temporary use of traditional land in PNG?

Imagine if the Motuan people were to be allowed to levy a city tax on those who used the land they used to own? What about the people of Lae and other cities and towns? It wouldn’t have to be much and there could be exclusions allowed.

What about mining and timber companies being legally held accountable for a fixed tax on temporary land usage? What about traditional owned fishing areas that could also issue licences to those who wanted to fish in their area? Why are there any tax-free incentives anyway?

What if the funds so raised were to be legally only accessed to directly fund water and sewerage or rubbish collection etc. No one would be allowed to dip into the funds for ‘personal expenses’.

Yet how would the collection and distribution of funds for temporary usage be audited and controlled any better than the current taxation system? Would we then just come back to whether the system could be or would be corrupted?

Still, if it were directly operated by local town councils and city councils, might there be a better chance at holding the operators directly accountable?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Yes, you're right Paul, it's always been a case of fitting traditional systems into a Western based legal model instead of the other way around.

I was a junior minion in the 1972 Commission of Enquiry Into Land Matters and the general drift then was to come up with a formula to modify traditional land tenure so that it was exploitable as a commodity, supposedly to enable economic development.

Sitting in the many consultative meetings that were conducted in all the districts it was remarkable to see how much local landowner's views were subverted to that aim, mainly in terms of turning clans into corporate bodies able to operate in the same way as landowning individuals in Western countries.

Apart from being frustrating it endorsed my view that the Australian administration, albeit extremely benign, was nevertheless an imperialistic colonist.

Stephen Charteris

Thanks Phil - I’m not particularly perceptive, just keep my eyes open. Prior to the crisis I visited Numa Numa and a number of the Roger Gillbanks - John Nightingale cocoa properties.

To my surprise and concern I found that Bougainvilleans were not working in those plantations. I also noted where the labourers were sourced and what happened to a percentage who did not return to their home province.

I had previously lived with communities in the Western Solomon Islands (almost mirror image of Bougainville) and worked in agriculture with communities in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

There could not have been a greater contrast between these peoples cultures anywhere else on earth. Not surprisingly I thought the situation vis a vis plantation labour could explode.

I stayed a couple of weeks with a Bougainville family near Arawa where I was given an education about how the big plantations and the mine had caused some disastrous outcomes for land and local women - a particular cause of anger.

Outcomes the landowners were never going to accept. In late 1987 it felt like the black swans were gathering and something was going to explode. It did.

I am sure we still share strong feelings about what happened, who was to blame and after possibly as many as 20,000 dead, what the future should look like.

Those feelings have not abated and I feel certain they haven't changed much for Bougainvilleans either.

Paul Oates

Let's call a spade a spade and not a shovel. The reality is that a foreign legal system was imposed on PNG and the current constitution assembled around those legal concepts.

The system of PNG land ownership was protected by the Australian Administration and alienation of land was prevented by some very far seeing colonial officials, prior to Independence.

Understanding the land tenure arrangements of traditional tribal societies is not easy to comprehend if you reside in a Canberra ivory tower or 'bubble' and have never sat down for any length of time in the villages where tribal custom is paramount.

Canberra and the Canberra regime has to work within Australian law and legislation. That effectively excludes recognition of tribal custom when it comes to finite responsibility and accountability under Australian law and accountability.

The problem arises when those who have an understanding of customary ownership of land and resources, are effectively sidelined by those who either don't know or more often don't care.

The situation then exists when the widening gap between recognised legislation and unwritten tribal culture allows those who aren't able to be held accountable, to do what they like with allocated funding.

Since that usually applies to those who are in powerful positions, who can the people go to for justice?

Two thousand years ago, the Romans lamented; 'Who will watch the watchers?'

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think your observation about why 98% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence is very perceptive, Stephen.

The intrusion of the Panguna mine and the influx of 'redskins' was a clear threat to traditional clan control of their land.

(I suspect that Rio Tinto knew exactly what it was doing and went ahead anyway in the mistaken belief that force would prevail.)

If Panguna could happen something similar could happen elsewhere in Bougainville. Only independence could stop it.

I doubt that the PNG government understands this and I'd suggest that the nascent Bougainville government's grasp of the concept is tenuous.

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