Papua Niugini

Random thoughts and other things by Bethan and Ed while living and working in Papua New Guinea for 12 months!

Poverty: A nice little earner!

It has been seven yrs since I started my journey into the world of international development, which is a very short amount of time. Throughout that time, I’ve engaged in many debates about the subject, and I’m sure they will continue into the future. It is also a matter that will, I believe, become increasingly debated in the UK as the Government is put under huge pressure over current budget cuts. The UK aid budget is currently being protected.

I guess this post is a brief record of my thoughts on development and the personal questions I have around some of the issues within the development sector today. I obviously believe in the premise of development and aid, and will challenge the often heard positions and opinions I hear against development in the mainstream media. The common viewpoints range from the overly simplistic statements like ‘charity starts at home’ to more nuanced opinions around creating dependency and developing a new form of colonialism to keep Western hegemony alive and well! I agree with elements of the later and little of the former. The list could go on around development and the different approaches taken, and the rights and wrongs of each of them.

It is important to consider that development is an extremely broad field and many different approaches are taken by individuals, charities, and Governments. The Japanese approach to aid is very different to the UK approach, Oxfam’s to World Vision etc. It is also important to consider that of course some aid is bad and some is good, like businesses, some are good and some are bad. Here is the first challenge, ultimately, businesses are judged on growth,and rising share value. What can you measure development against? As you can imagine social development is a lot more complex than efficiency and the bottom line. Social development is multifaceted and non-linear, so can easily be labelled as inefficient and resource intensive. I whole heartedly believe that development interventions need to be measured but the complexity of what is measured and the results are less easy to translate to a mass audience in snappy media statements, like the end of year reports from HSBC. This results in NGOs and Governments over simplifying the impacts they have and in turn over-simplifying the process of development.

I don’t think that just because something in the commercial sense is inefficient, it shouldn’t be done. Inefficiency creates learning and creates results. However, it is important that lessons are learnt from ‘failures’ or inefficiency. Governments, NGOs and individuals need to be able to admit failure, without fear of a media backlash that will reduce potential resources available for development work. I fully believe that the media should scrutinise the development sector, it needs it, but in an objective and mature way, which is not the media’s strong point. Viewing figures, papers sold and political agendas drives the UK media more than objectivity, not to mention the lack of context in reporting when covering complex issues (as do blog posts!).

The increasing drive to demonstrate impact has rapidly pushed the development sector to professionalise and as a result, development has entered into the free-market, it is now big business. I fully agree with professionalism and I believe that non-nationals working in development need development skills to do that work or to work closely with people who do. In the same light I would not expect town planners to do their work without the relevant training or social workers to support families without the appropriate skills.

The challenge with professionalism mixed with the free-market is money. There are an increasing number of consultancies popping up over the globe to lift people out of poverty. This in itself is not a problem, as it creates competition, innovation and (hopefully) better results. The problem comes when the market value of development consultants climbs. If poverty reduction is in part about reducing inequality, it is hard to justify the high daily rates that some development consultants/staff are paid. The knock on effect is that this pushes traditional ‘aid agencies’ to offer relatively high salaries for skilled ‘non-national’ staff, again contributing to a form of inequality. I understand the need for agencies to attract skilled non-national staff due to the frequent skill gaps in country and money is a great way to do that. Just to highlight one of these gaps, in the UK we have 1 doctor per 370 people and in Papua New Guinea there is 1 doctor per 18,868 people.

My dilemma is that, should we in the profession of development make a stand against this increasing gap between the ‘ex-pat’ workers and national workers? This is a reality for me as a ‘volunteer’, as my living allowance is considerably higher than all of my colleagues’ wages. Obviously, it would be hard for non-national development workers/health professionals to live alongside Papua New Guinean colleagues due to the huge cultural gap and what we are both used to but I truly believe we can get closer. Surely development is not about supporting ‘ex-pats’ to live lives they could not dream of in their own country’s!

Highlands in the morning

Simbu Province - Taste of the Highlands

The Highlands and Highlanders have a reputation – regular tribal fighting and tough people. As with so many generalisations and reputations, they are often laden with half truths and judgements by outsiders; not to mention that the Highlands is a huge area and made up of many different peoples. This is not to say that the Highlands does not have elements of the harsh realities of a tribal region. It does, and as a result it can be a very confronting place at times, which we did experience even in a very short time of being in a small town called Kundiawa in Simbu Province. But those experiences were a fraction of our time there. There was a lot more to the small part of the Highlands I saw and the people I met. They were hugely welcoming, vibrant, generous and proud.

After spending a few days in Kundiawa town with some friends, we headed off to the village of one of our friend’s mother. The journey took around 45mins along paved and then unpaved roads, up to an altitude of around 2000m to a small village perched in the hills. We were taken by the villagers on a small tour around a few of the connecting communities. This created a procession of people following the ‘white people’ across the hills! Our friend Lucy then took us to her aunt’s house. As we approached we could hear crying from the house, and my first thought was that we had arrived at a time of morning. Like many cultures, Papua New Guineans are very vocal in mourning; but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The crying was happiness and a form of welcoming to Lucy and her friends!

We were given a dinner of some of the tastiest garden vegetable and then we set up camp in the community hall. As dusk turned to night, slowly more and more people joined around for a fire and some ‘storying’ (chatting) and a ‘singsing’ (dancing and singing). There was around 20 adults and about 10 children. It was at this point that we discovered that we were the first ‘white people’ to have ever stayed in this village, which was a huge privilege and a memory that I will not forget. We also discovered after handing out the buscuits that we had a brought as a small gift, that we were actually introducing the children to this sugary treat. Like many of Papua New Guineas villages the people within the community were subsistance farmers so any money they did have (through selling excess crops) was used for essentials such as salt, oil, and school and health fees. We stayed around the fire until 1am before heading to bed.

Before we left the following morning we were given breakfast and then taken into the communities gardens to harvest pineapples, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens to take home with us.

It is hard to express how warm and welcoming Lucy’s family were to us. It is impossible to think of a similar situation in the reverse and how a community in the UK might react to people as ‘foreign’ as we were to this Highlands village. I hope in a similar way but I’m not sure!

(Pictures relating to this post are below and above the text)

Highlands - Night in the village

Highlands Highway

As I expected my motivation to write blog posts has dropped off a little, hence I’m writing this post about a trip to the Highlands, 2 months after it happened!

Essentially I needed to escape Madang, after a bout of dengue or malaria, I wanted to spend some time with Bethan, meet some friends and enjoy a climate that doesn’t involve sweating from 8amto midnight everyday. The Highlands have hot days and cool nights, which is perfect for me.

Getting to the Highlands is a tough journey by public transport due to rough roads and the potential for hold ups. Luckily I managed to get a lift with a driver from one of the cocoa exporters in Madang, this meant a relatively comfortable journey along the Highlands Highway.  The journey was only interrupted by a few informal ‘road blocks’ controlled by people who live along the Highway and ‘fix’ the road and stop vehicles for a fee. We managed to buy our way through, with betel nut, a must for a journey along the Highway, it is also very welcome for people in the Highlands, as betel nut doesn’t grow up there, so it costs about 3 times as much, I had about 5kg with me!

The Highlands Highway is the longest road in Papua New Guinea and connects some of the biggest towns in the country and acts as a major trading route between the lowlands and the Highlands.  The road winds its way up to the Highlands from the Ramu Valley, a major Palm Oil and Sugar producing valley, pretty much owned by the British. The road then enters the Eastern Highlands and slowly makes it way over high passes and through rolling hills towards Simbu Province, which was my final destination, a small mountain town called Kundiawa.

The Highlands Highway is one of the most beautiful roads I have driven along and you can play darts for beer along the way and eat barbequed cuscus! Any L.A.R.D. players out there…lets arrange a tour!

See pictures in previous post.

Highlands Highway

Per diems- to give or not to give?

Another post from Bethan!

Whenever considering the budget for running training in PNG you need to include funding for allowances/per diems for the participants. This varies from about 6.50-15 pounds equivalent per day depending on where the training is, the persons position etc. The idea of the per diem is to help the participants to cover costs such as travel or food because they are unable to go to their gardens to collect food while they are in training. However, the figure chosen seems somewhat arbitrary as it is standard for all participants, even those who are working so are receiving their wage as well. The challenge is that the value of training can be seen in the money people earn (I have heard it referred to as an incentive) rather than what they learn. It also considerably increases the cost of running any training programmes and seems unnecessary when the people participating in the training are benefiting from the learning. It is also a system that can be open to abuse. As a result a number of organisations do not give participants any allowance only covering costs for which people can produce receipts.

I had spent a lot of time debating the giving of allowances with myself (I have had a lot of time on my own over the last 9 weeks). On the one hand you are working with people who have very limited financial resources to fall back on so would struggle to attend any training if the cost of their travel and food costs were not covered. On the other hand the training is run to benefit the participants and in some cases to bring them future income, such as sewing and cooking training so to pay them to participate doesn’t seem quite right. Particularly when you consider the fact that community outreach officers who work to support disabled people in their communities are only earning about 35 pounds a week equivalent.

The week I spent in Siolvuti in West New Britain Province was a real eye opener for me however in terms of the fact that people really do appreciate the potential training has. Because we didn’t have enough money to pay for accommodation all of the male participants were sleeping on the floor of the room where we were conducting the training and each day they were taken up to the river so they could have a wash. Also because of the limited budget we had to shorten the training course from 4 days to 3 so each days training was from 8am to 9pm. So while in the UK participants would not be given allowances to participate in training and often have to pay to attend I do not see many Brits being willing to put up with these kinds of conditions.

This reminded me that I was looking at this from my cultural perspective, and one which places a lot of value on financial reward. For the participants the allowance was merely a way of enabling them to learn. I still think allowances need to be reviewed, and rather than an arbitrary rate being given to everyone it should be given to each participant to cover their travel cost firstly and then a set amount after that for those who are not working (a view also expressed by a fellow Papua New Guinean trainer). But the belief that people are gaining sufficient benefit from the training and should therefore not expect to be supported financially in order to do so, misses the point that the poorest and most in need (exactly the people we are aiming to support) will be completely unable to access the training if they are not assisted.

A dangerous message from the church!

Wow, I am in shock after reading the National Catholic Family Life Apostolate booklet ‘About Sex’.

It starts off with some fairly amusing suggestions such as, ‘Some kinds of body gestures e.g. artificial styles of walking, laughing, ugly hair-do’s, crazy fashions and indiscreet talk or conduct add up to very undesirable behaviour. This puts the individual in a category other than that of lady or gentleman.’ And we are told that ‘Shaggy hair, dirty clothes and unpolished shoes on an individual create an image of irresponsibility and obviously low or even no self esteem’. Don’t worry if you are scratching your head and wondering what all this has to do with sex, I read the whole booklet and I still don’t know.

The booklet eventually gets onto discussing changing emotions and we are informed that as a young person grows ‘he will feel interested and attracted to the opposite sex and develop sexual desires that crave to be satisfied’ (of course nobody could ever be attracted to somebody of the same sex!!!!) ‘it is through the body’s feeling and desires that most sexual beings lose their self-dignity’. And in case you are in any doubt this is a bad thing as ‘Society as a whole will neither respect such a person nor give them important social responsibilities’. 

You may be wondering when these particular words of wisdom were published. It wasn’t the 1920’s or even the 1950’s as you may think but was in fact published in 2007.

By page 18 of the 22 page booklet I am starting to get concerned that this book on sex targeted at young people who are confused about the sexual feelings they are experiencing has not actually told the reader anything about how the sexual act works. But do not fear, the title of page 19 is ‘About Contraceptives’ so I am reassured that we will finally get onto understanding what it is all about. However, this is where the booklet moves from being extremely old fashioned, prudish and  potentially amusing to downright dangerous in a country with an HIV rate of 0.8%.

N.B. This is all quoted directly to avoid the risk of not properly representing the true message of the book.

‘The use of the condom (or rubber sheath) and of any of the other contraceptives, is contrary to the teaching of the Church, since it intentionally and artificially deprives the normal sexual act of the possibility of giving birth to a child. Moreover, not only do contraceptives give false security to the youth but using them also:

-Weakens of one’s self control


- Sexually transmitted diseases


- Promiscuity

- Possible pregnancies

- Abortion’

And all this time I had been under the false impression that contraceptives and condoms in particular, are used to protect against STDs, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies and the need for abortions.

In essence the message of the book is that sex outside of marriage is wrong and in order to avoid it you need to develop self-discipline and self-dignity. I disagree with this viewpoint and I disagree with the way it is portrayed as fact rather than opinion. However, inferring, as this booklet does, that contraceptives contribute to rather than prevent STD’s, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy is not just fraudulent but is fundamentally dangerous.

West New Britain and a changing World

The last province in my 3 province, 9 week adventure was West New Britain, home to Gloucester. This approach to naming new lands leaves me pondering the early colonialist enormous lack of imagination in traveling to the other side of the world and using exactly the same names as they used in the lands they left thousands of miles behind. However, when you look out across this tropical, volcanic landscape with palm trees, coral reefs, and hot springs your left thinking that maybe someone calling it Gloucester had a highly evolved imagination or sense of humour.

You arrive in WNB at Hoskins airport and then travel by car for about an hour to Kimbe, the Provincial capital. Throughout the journey all you can see around you is row after row of Palm oil (or oil palm), which along with logging is the major industry in the province. Palm oil is a relatively short, fat palm tree, the fruit of which is used in many of the processed foods and soaps that we use daily. I spent the first and third week of my time in WNB in Kimbe which is nice enough but not a place to get too excited about. In the second week I travelled with three other members of the provincial aids office about 2 and half hours through palm oil and logging areas down the coast to a logging post called Silovuti. A logging camp for over 30 years it is hard to recognise the economic benefits that this major industry has had for the local community. It really highlights the need to manage the incredibly rich resources PNG are in the process of fully exploiting. It is easy to see the environmental damage that will be done to the country in the coming years, but it is not obvious that the economic benefits that will accompany this destruction will come to the local community.  

In Europe we have spent a lot of our history trashing our environment. We have cleared the majority of our forests and it is easy to see the impact of coal mining and the steel industry in South Wales, where I grew up. At that time environmental understanding was limited and as peoples living conditions were harsh they were keen to find ways to make money and improve their quality of life as quickly as possible. Papua New Guinea looks for many of the benefits that we gained as we moved through the industrial revolution but I just feel that with the improved understanding we have now it could be done in a much better way.

It is interesting being on this side of the world and tuning into PNG, Australian and Asian television. As opposed to Europe and North America the news and current affairs programmes are filled with optimism and you really feel like the world order is shifting. The economies on this side of the world are booming, so it will be interesting to see how things progress. It really does feel like when the American and British political debates are centred around domestic issues to explain the current economic situation they really are missing the point. Economies on this side of the world are now booming, it is just a question of at what cost.

From Global to Local

Bethan’s experience in Manus

The second province on my itinerary was Manus, a group of islands a few degrees south of the equator. The majority of the population live on the Islands of Manus and Los Negroes, which are separated by a small stretch of water. Manus has been much in the international news of late, as one of the locations the Australian government has chosen to utilise for processing asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. It is an intriguing policy which aims to deter potential migrants from choosing the risky boat trips that arrive at Christmas Island, and has caused significant controversy in the region. Nobody from Manus told me what they thought about the policy, but did express concern that they would benefit from the use of their Province as an asylum processing site for the Aus government.

As well as running training with the Provincial Aids Council in the province I also used the opportunity to find out more about the work being done to support coastal communities to adapt to the effects of climate change. Sustainable fishing practices, the reintroduction of mangroves and the cultivation of corals are all being encouraged to protect the communities from the effects of changing seas to which they have already lost land.

Talking with the community did make me think back to the work I did with Oxfam campaigning on climate change, and was a perfect example of the impacts felt by communities who have contributed so little to the rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere but are the first to feel the effects in their lives.

It was great to interview a fisherman and hear about the very direct benefits he and his family are experiencing as a result of the changes to their fishing practices and in particular the protection of spawning sites. I was also told about a trip the community are involved in, where a group are using traditional canoes to travel huge distances to visit other PNG islands as well as the Solomon Islands and Nauru to raise awareness of climate change and share stories with other coastal communities. If you want to find out more check out

Although Manus is a small Island in the Pacific Ocean I guess the above really highlights the interconnectedness of the present global system, and arguably the costs put upon the poorest in society as a result.