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The gloomy confessions of an aid adviser

Pro-independence t-shirts on sale at Bel Isi Park,  Buka,  Bougainville,  2019 (Gordon Peake)

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Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation: Journeys in Bougainville by Gordon Peake, ANU Press, December 2022, 158 pages. ISBN 9781760465438. Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation is not for sale but link here for a free download

CANBERRA - Gordon Peake’s marvellous new book Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation is based on the four years he spent in Bougainville as an Australian aid-funded adviser, from 2016 to 2019. It is both entertaining and insightful.

Peake is a brilliant writer. He writes movingly about Arawa, Bougainville’s once booming, now decaying mining town.

A major preoccupation is Beatrice Blackwood, the pioneering British anthropologist who spent 18 months in Bougainville around 1930, and whose 600-page book, letters and adventures are brought back to life for us.

Peake    CoverAnd yet, for all its fascinating and often amusing accounts and anecdotes, Unsung Land is a disturbing read.

The author’s job was to help the Bougainville government ‘draw down’ those powers the national Papua New Guinean government has already (in fact long ago) agreed it could have.

Despite its aspirations for independence, the Bougainville government is not interested in the business of draw down, and Peake is not sure what he is achieving.

“[W]e were here to help, but were we helping?”, he asks forlornly at one point.

Other programs of support to Bougainville that delivered more tangible help, such as grants for water and sanitation projects, “seemed to be faring much better in terms of impact and effectiveness” than the advisory work he was engaged in.

Peake writes illuminatingly and convincingly about the theory of adviser effectiveness, saying that one can only be effective “when paired with something else”, namely someone who actually wants the advice, and is able to act on it.

Such pairings were almost completely missing in Bougainville. The government was “stone-broke”  and “inert”. There were “[p]rofound structural issues with the public service”, to the extent that “it was difficult to locate people to work with”.

Towards the end of the book, Peake defends the sort of advisory work he does as “long-haul, much needed, foundational but unheralded”.

But it is hard to see a strong basis for this positive assessment in the pages that precede it.

The bottom line is that there just isn’t political interest in effective government in Bougainville.

In such a scenario, “trying to conjure up a government through the production of ever more complex plans and detailed policies”  – the work of the team of 15 that Peake was part of – is a recipe only for frustration and failure.

The lack of interest in building an effective state in Bougainville is linked, Peake suggests, to the region’s social structure, and the pre-eminence of its clans.

In Bougainville, as in the rest of PNG, politicians are elected not on the basis of national (or regional) policy but on local issues. Without political support for state building, that project will flounder.

The paradox that arises is why, if all politics is so local, support for independence is so strong.

If, as Peake concludes, independence will not make a material difference to the lives of Bougainvilleans, why did 98.3% of them vote for it in the 2019 referendum?

There must surely be a strong Bougainvillean identity, but not one that is strong enough to support nation building.

Peake’s take on Bougainville, like his take on technical assistance, is affectionate but again downbeat.

Normally disillusionment follows independence; in the case of Bougainville, the move to independence has taken so long that this sequence has been reversed.

Fifteen years of “cheerless peace” have passed since the end of the civil war. A “pensive sadness” covers much of the region.

The administration is already bogged down in corruption, and disputes over corruption.

Peake emphasises the lack of international support for Bougainville’s independence as a cause for the slow progress towards it, but it seems to me that the more important factor is that PNG doesn’t want Bougainville to break away, and it is unclear which side will prevail.

Even if independence seems inevitable after the overwhelming yes vote, no one knows when it will be – it could take another 20 years. In this context of great uncertainty, the best option for other countries is to stay neutral.

I have said that this book is downbeat, but I would also say that it is honest. In this regard, the author has done us all a great favour.

I am not against the use of technical assistance in aid, but the question does need to be asked whether the environment in which the advisers would be or are working is conducive to that work making a difference. In many contexts, including in Bougainville, it clearly is not.

Given this, when Peake writes that Australian support to Bougainville has, since he left, shifted away from advisory to “the support of organisations in Bougainville that provide practical assistance”, it sounds like a move in the right direction to me.

And yet this is hardly a general trend. Australia’s new government is preparing a new aid policy, but it has already declared that the first focus of this policy will be building effective, accountable states that can sustain their own development.

The lack of realism in this goal will be evident to anyone who reads Unsung Land. It is a book to be read for enjoyment, for understanding and for better aid policy.


I had written this review when I came across an Abt Associates invitation to tender to provide aid-funded training for Bougainvillean public servants and MPs, both in Bougainville and in Australia.

The intent of the training is to “develop a cadre of ethical and accountable leaders that have the capability (and the motivation) to collaborate, lead and manage the delivery of equitable government services to all citizens of Bougainville”.

And so it goes. Peake comments at one point in his book that “the lure of the [aid-funded] trip… sometimes felt like the defining impetus behind bureaucratic decision making” in Bougainville.


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Joachim Lummani

This is an interesting assessment containing many truths.

Stephen Charteris

Reflections on Confessions of an adviser by Professor Stephen Howes

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

For me, 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 argue it is, then 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 nation building activities and those responsible for implementation to the influence of clans, land and culture.

Papua New Guinea has been described as 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 percent of the land and much of Papua New Guinea’s productive waters is under the unalienable ownership of clans. Tightly knit communities that have maintained their culture, language and independent way of life for centuries.

At least eighty-five percent of the population of nine, or more, million people in PNG lives on clan land that has been passed down through generations and is governed by traditional practices.

Clan or traditional land ownership is power. 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 it 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 them to be more occupied with this than government business.

Peake also reports that the Bougainville government was "broke'. The same could be said for the provincial administrations of the twenty-one other provinces. All of which are responsible for delivering education, health, law and order and infrastructure services.

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, the notion that this is possible through cash strapped authority in the absence of any significant input from those whose lives they wish to improve is laughable.

The model of service delivery instigated since before independence is the creation of a foreign power and like the introduction of the cane toad in 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 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 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 notes that water and sanitation projects seemed to fare better in terms of impact and effectiveness. This should not surprise since these activities deliver benefits communities want.

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

When the land and resources of your ancestors is your inheritance. When the tragic consequences that ensued courtesy of inwards migration of people from other regions to work in foreign owned plantations, coupled by the impact of a foreign owned mine, whose operations permanently poisoned land, rivers and reefs, that paid royalties to a government hundreds of kilometres distant across the sea, that appeared to mismanage the benefits derived from your land, then cutting ties and going independent is a sine qua non.

So where does 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 riding roughshod over traditional societies in Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands in the interests of mining is not one of them.

The historical top down, one size fits all model that has existed for almost fifty years has failed the majority of the population. There is a requirement for a new compact with its citizens. One that is more responsive to the needs of those in traditional settings.

Clans must play a valuable role within the totality of nation building. For them to contribute to the services they desire, services the government cannot deliver within its own resources. Two-way street partnerships of this nature 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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