Sunday, May 24, 2009

AusAID consultants in Papua New Guinea

There has been an exchange recently regarding the value and associated cost of consultants employed in AusAid-backed projects in PNG. Whilst such people will obviously live with difficulties and frustrations as much as job-satisfaction, it is a sad fact that a great many of them are not well-prepared by their sponsors for the tasks and the social environment they face in PNG.
It is a characteristic both of AusAid and its partners, the multinational consultancies which plan and execute projects, that   examinations of project results in years following completion are filed away, the process rather than the result being the important factor. Lessons, even if they are pointed to, are almost never learned and incorporated within the next set of endeavors.  In recent years the costly and largely wasteful  South Simbu and North Simbu social development projects come to mind, following half a dozen similarly-wasteful efforts beginning in the Southern Highlands back in the 'seventies. Similarly we recall the 15-year-long- ( late 1980's-1990's)- three-tranche  Assistance to the PNG Police program- costly and largely without  result except for the enrichment of the relevant consultants. This one became "too hard," and is understood to have been converted into a housing program.
This is to say nothing of the yawning gulf of absence of " country-knowledge" which must have accompanied the planning for the lamentably-badly-implemented and yet immensely important ECP program. In so many instances the naïve fancies of little groups of highly-educated but unworldly Australian academics and DFAT functionaries are brought to bear on situations which they really do not have the maturity or background experience to fully understand. It seems to an outsider that the only product of any substance is the slow ooze of  the rich, PhD-seeker-sustaining treacle which drips from the great, southern cornucopia which is AusAid.
Australians in general together with the breed described in the media  as "Pacific Specialists" really don't understand just how different PNG society is from that which occupies Australia. The "Pacific Specialists" upon whose advice aid programs delivered in PNG are based  obviously draw from a Western matrix for their ideas, not only because this is usually the only basis they have, but also because it is the unstated but underlying objective of all these projects to Westernize the recipient society in some measure. With only a superficial understanding of the groups of people they are working with it is natural that engagement and achievement also are superficial. PNG is a highly-convoluted maze both in a physical and a conceptual sense.
 For instance, whilst there is a perception commonly held in Australia that PNG politics is a sea of corruption, it is not generally understood just how wide and deep this problem is. I was in discussion with a young AusAid official some time ago, where I made one or two of the points sketched here. His reaction was to tell me with glee of the cunning and "street-smarts" of his compatriots, who, working with Government financial controllers in Port Moresby had formed a sort of  " defense league" against the plundering politicians who would enter offices as soon as they were aware of the arrival of funds into certain accounts and demand to see both the bank statements and signed cheques giving them access. My informant was overjoyed with what he described as a "Canberra ploy" where consultants showed the local finance men how to create so-called "hollow logs" - being hidden accounts where sums could be kept at will, unknown to the raiding politicians. I was quite stunned at the level of childish naivety demonstrated. Since this I have read the term " hollow log" mentioned in a press report dealing with some controversy involving public funds. One must believe that once again the Aussies have triumphed. Sad, isn't it?
John Fowke
24 Monterey Avenue,
Thornlands Q 4164
07 3488 2178

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