Late last year one of our volunteers had an assignment lined up in Port Moresby. A couple of weeks before she was due to leave, this volunteer began hesitating. She had been on other ABV assignments but was worried about PNG. PNG is different, everyone has heard stories about how dangerous it is. In the end, this particular volunteer did the assignment and her work was very much appreciated by our partner. This volunteer has since returned to PNG on a further assignment, having positive experiences on both occasions.
I often find this to be the case when volunteers undertake their first assignment in PNG. They are invariably happy to return and gain a further understanding of a country which is so close to Australia in proximity yet is extremely complicated with over 800 different language groups and cultures. I too was one of those volunteers when I first went to Goroka in 2008 and worked with the Coffee Industry Corporation. Since then, I have returned on countless occasions, developing close relationships – friendships – with Papua New Guineans as we look to address some critical challenges facing PNG.
I was reminded about my own experiences, and those of our volunteers, upon reading Sean Dorney’s The Embarrassed Colonialist, a recently published Lowy Institute paper. Dorney explores how Australia has contributed to both PNG’s strengths and weaknesses, first as a colonial power and since independence in 1975 as its main donor. Whilst it is easy to look at the challenges such as poor governance, corruption and law and order, not enough attention is given to the strengths of PNG, particularly given that PNG has only been an independent country for forty years. As Dorney points out, PNG is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the potential for tourism is significant (if both governments can sort out their visa issues) and it has a vibrant free media. Whilst violence against women cannot be denied, PNG women are making tremendous contributions as we have found in our recent work with the PNG Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The issues are too complex to be addressed here. Given our historical relationship whereby ‘millions of Australian’s are related to those generations who worked, lived, pioneered, made and lost fortunes and fought there’, as Dorney explains, Australia has a responsibility to dispel the perceptions and to understand the complexities.
PNG was the first country where ABV worked and is where we have sent the most volunteers. As I think our volunteers will agree, it is people to people contact which does the most to overcome perceptions. Having organised close to a thousand assignments in PNG, ABV has in a small way helped increase mutual understanding. Thirty five years on, ABV’s work in PNG continues as we strengthen our relationships with business and government to find ways to jointly address some of the challenges facing PNG such as growing small business and women’s economic development.