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Reflections on working in PNG

Reflections on working in PNG

As an outsider, it’s quite difficult to describe Papua New Guinea. Despite managing a partnership for a over a year, visiting the country for a two week project evaluation, and doing a ton of research, I’m still not sure if I can accurately depict PNG. It’s a fascinating country, culturally rich and diverse, with stunning and varied landscapes throughout. The Wantok system (understood as one’s loyalty to their family and clan) is incredibly important, especially in the Highlands. Traditional beliefs and practices are firmly upheld.

However, there are significant challenges currently facing PNG. Since 80% of the population live remotely, the government struggles to provide basic services like health, education, and adequate water and sanitation to all of these communities. Due to a recent increase in urban migration, particularly for the youth population, unemployment is a serious issue. In the cities such as Port Moresby, the number of people little in urban settlements (slums) is alarming. Across the nation, crime and corruption is endemic at every level. Conflict between tribal clans is ongoing and severe. Gender violence is pervasive. And the health status of the population is alarming. 

But the story doesn’t end here. In PNG, the division between the rich and poor is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. In the capital city of Port Moresby for instance, fancy multi-million dollar hotels are currently being constructed on waterfront property, caged in by guards and barbed wire, yet looking directly out on to impoverished settlements built on stilts above the bay. Up until a year ago, the public was advised not to swim in the bay as the water was riddled with cholera (due to sewage being drained directly from the settlements).

The mining boom in PNG further exacerbates this situation. Any benefit obtained through mining largely fails to reach the poor or assist in service provision. Instead, the wealthy become wealthier, safekeeping their money offshore by investing in property in Australia.

On top of this, the costs of living and working in PNG are unbelievable. Despite the minimum wage being PGK 2.20 (approximately $1.10 AUD) an hour, housing costs and daily expenses are outrageously expensive. Getting your hands on a 2 litre bottle of fresh, refrigerated milk in Port Moresby will set you back about $10 AUD. So it’s no wonder that opportunistic crime is rampant; people are literally stealing to survive.

Transport and logistics are also hugely expensive. For one of Baptist Union’s projects based in Yangis, Enga Province, you need to fly in by charter plane in order to reach the community. And this costs roughly $800 AUD each way per person. For this reason, working remotely is extremely challenging, both logistically and financially. 

I’ve barely touched the surface of some of the issues facing PNG right now. But when you consider these challenges collectively, it helps illustrate why development work in PNG is just so complex. Factors such as high costs, geographical remoteness, logistical challenges, political uncertainty, and frequent conflict mean that implementing development projects is extremely challenging. Put simply, there is no silver bullet solution for any single issue facing PNG.

So why do we do it? Why pour in so much time and energy to development work in PNG when it’s an uphill (often literally!) battle? The answer is simple in my mind. In PNG, there is an overwhelming need for support. And backing down, simply because it’s expensive and a bit of a headache, would be unjust.

The number of wonderful people I have met whose courage, determination and drive for enabling change in their community is something that will always stick with me. These people are truly admirable, and these are the kinds of people that should shape our perceptions of PNG, not the skewed perception that the media chooses to portray.

Papua New Guinea should continue to remain at the forefront of our development work, both at Oaktree, and at a national level. I leave my role with great hope that the next generation of Papua New Guineans will experience significant and sustainable change during their lifetime. 

Phoebe Hammond was Oaktree's BUPNG Partnership Manager from mid 2012 to October this year.

Image: For one of Baptist Union’s projects based in Yangis you need to fly in by charter plane in order to reach the community.