Sally Andrews, New Colombo Plan scholar, writes on her experience researching maternal health with GE in PNG. This was her first experience in PNG and it inspired her to remain engaged with Australia’s nearest neighbour.

Sally Andrews meets The Tribal Foundation

Back in November 2015 I was awarded a New Colombo Plan scholarship to work and study in the Indo-Pacific for 18 months. The New Colombo Plan has been one of Julie Bishop’s signature policies during her leadership of DFAT, and the 2016 period will see one hundred young Australian scholars undertaking long-term scholarships across the Indo-Pacific, with hundreds more heading off on short-term mobility grants. Alongside my fellow NCP scholar Matthew Nicholl, I was excited to commence my scholarship by heading to Port Moresby to intern with GE on a maternal health project. We would be the first scholars to work in Papua New Guinea as part of the New Colombo Plan.

Whilst I had some knowledge of the region thanks to a previous internship with the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program, viewing the realities of maternal health and gender inequality in Papua New Guinea was nonetheless eye-opening. During the last five years GE has developed a portable ultrasound device called the Vscan, and has donated seven of these devices to health posts in Enga province. Our mission as interns was relatively simple; we were to research maternal mortality in PNG, and work out where a further seven Vscans should be deployed in a second trial province.

The Vscan holds the potential to bring serious change to maternal health in PNG. As we were being trained in how to operate the device, I was struck by its resemblance to the classic iPod, not only due to the faint design similarities, but also due to its ease of use. As a law student by training- who was initially attempting to locate my own heart on the wrong side of my chest- I could not help but be impressed that even someone with my dire medical ignorance was perfectly capable of using the Vscan.

The health posts in Enga where the Vscans are used are hundreds of kilometres from major hospitals. In PNG many women continue to give birth in their villages, and those that can afford to give birth under medical supervision often have to walk for hours to reach the nearest medical post. Sometimes the long and arduous walks can induce labour, leaving women in highly vulnerable positions. The distance also prevents many women from being able to undertake any form of medical examination prior to birth. Our research revealed that this was one of the key frustrations encountered by PNG medical professionals, generating situations in which women would die in childbirth from complications that could have easily been addressed had they been detected earlier in the pregnancy.

This is where the Vscan comes in. The ability to use a handheld device to conduct ultrasounds in remote locations enables doctors to search for perinatal conditions in expectant mothers in the months prior to birth. Once armed with this knowledge, they can arrange for these women to travel and receive appropriate treatment for potential complications well before it is too late.

Of course, the Vscan alone cannot hope to make a dent in the PNG maternal mortality rate. We spent much of our days learning from other key actors within the PNG healthcare space, including the amazing staff at Port Moresby General Hospital, the Australian High Commission, the OilSearch Foundation, the Tribal Foundation, and grassroots organisations like Susu Mamas. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this internship, it’s that finding maternal health solutions in PNG is a matter of developing partnerships and capitalising on local expertise. Whilst our research into the complexities of poverty, gender, and healthcare in PNG has at times been dispiriting, I was encouraged by our encounters with passionate young Papua New Guineans, including the Aus-PNG Network’s Emerging Leaders Dialogue alumni, and also by the genuine desire that exists within the private sector to make a difference in maternal health in this country.

Sally Andrews showing the Vscan device to some pathologists from POM General Hospital.

My experience in PNG has been a series of fascinating surprises and contradictions. Secure accommodation and transport in PNG are extremely expensive in Port Moresby, such that our whole stay would not have been possible without the generous support of GE and the NCP scholarship. The security measures surrounding expat life have been very intense, and the stark dichotomy between the lives of nationals and expats has been quite confronting. Viewing the contrast between the massive PNG LNG plant to the north of Port Moresby and the villages that line the road on the way up there- where the locals live in shacks without running water and electricity- was a particularly jolting experience. So too were the differences between the conditions of the hot and overcrowded Port Moresby General Hospital, and those in the private international hospital I attended after a run-in with an overenthusiastic guard dog. I have looked over breathtaking views after hiking along the top of mountain ranges, shared a pineapple-flavoured Fanta over the blazing sunsets of Fairfax Harbour, watched the parliamentary live feeds with the whole country as Prime Minister O’Neill survived a vote of no confidence, and entertained locals with my attempts to barter in halting Tok Pisin.

All this while I have been keenly aware that Australia is but a few hundred kilometres away, and that Australian colonisation, paternalism, and neglect bears much responsibility for the dysfunction that this country now finds itself in. There is a great need for Australians to reflect seriously on our legacy in PNG and what it entails for the future of the relationship, in a way that goes beyond surface level engagement and the endless glorification of our shared wartime history.

Sally Andrews with fellow New Colombo Plan intern, Matthew Nicholl, the Australian High Commissioner, Bruce Davis, and Head of GE in PNG, Peter Loko.

I arrived in PNG with a hundred questions, and have left with even more. I have gazed out of the tinted windows of my security van at schoolgirls not much younger than myself, and wondered what kind of future this country could hold for them. All I know so far is that I will be coming back. My hope it that with the continued leadership of organisations like GE, alongside the support of programs like the New Colombo Plan and the Aus-PNG Network, participating in cultural and professional exchange in Papua New Guinea will become a common pursuit for many more young Australians.

All photographs supplied by Sally Andrews.

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