2015 Aus-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue participant, David Kitchnoge, reflects on his experience growing up in PNG in the post-independence era and the legacy of the Australian administration. He argues that there are lessons to be learned from this time and that these lessons show the importance of maintaining the strong ties between Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Photo: Tanaka Juuyoh/Flickr

Having entered this world three years after our country gained independence from Australia, it is fair to say that I grew up with Papua New Guinea. I consider myself very privileged to have grown up during an era when Papua New Guinea was in such a strong position, both socially and economically. This position was in part due to the physical and intellectual structures PNG inherited from the Australian administration.

There is a reason why Lae was called the ‘Garden City’ and Madang wore the enviable tag of ‘Pearl of the Pacific’. Unfortunately, Morobean and Madang babies of the late ‘80s onwards would have little clue as to why. They grew up in a time when the legitimacy of these name tags was beginning to be questioned, with both towns eventually losing them somewhere in the ‘90s. Those of the older generations who can still remember what these cities were once like will agree that they were deserving of the titles. The Botanical Gardens was the jewel in the crown in Lae for a long time. It was simply an inspiration! And Madang town was such a darling. I can still see the water lilies in the ponds and the public theatre along Binen Road.

I spent my childhood in a village in the middle of the Finistere range and only ever visited Lae and Madang for short periods when Mum decided to take us to town for the Christmas holidays. So my reflections of what things were like are mostly confined to these two towns but I think others in PNG were similar in the years immediately after independence. The roads in Lae were in such excellent condition that Sedans were the car of choice for residents there, as opposed to the Four Wheel Drives and Station Wagons that are necessary now. And it was the same for Madang. Our little airstrip in my village in Mindik was well maintained and there were flights that came in and out of Lae with Morobe Airways and CoAir. Yep, you read that right. There was competition in the third level airline space because there was money to be made in the villages.

Such was the strength of the core infrastructure left behind by Australia, it is hard to believe Papua New Guineans didn’t capitalise on it. We did not need to build anything for ourselves. It was all there – all we needed to do was maintain it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Looking back at what things were like, my impression is that Australia couldn’t have left us any more prepared to launch into statehood, in terms of the key infrastructure on the ground. The thinking behind the development structures they left us with also made a lot of sense as the focus was on agriculture. We were and still are an agrarian society and working the land has always been our strength. Two key components of any successful industry are sustainability of supply chains and ease of access to markets. Australia left behind structures that addressed these two areas for PNG’s agriculture sector. The third key element is labour but we have that in bucket loads.

The cooperatives that were established at this time were designed to harness the communal social make up of PNG society for our economic gain. Individuals inside cooperatives who showed commitment and business nous naturally evolved into successful quasi-capitalist entrepreneurs. Most, if not all, of these early Papua New Guinean entrepreneurs had agriculture as their stepping stone. Australians introduced Didimans (village based agriculture officers) who stayed with farmers on the ground and advised on farming techniques, efficiency gains and pest control. They also established commodity price stabilisation funds to shield farmers from swings in global commodity prices.

Key roads, jetties and airstrips for transporting commodities were built using the ‘komuniti wok’ (community work) model, which saw communities come together and commit their time to building these infrastructure projects. People understood the communal benefits of these projects and willingly contributed not only their labour but other resources such as food to feed workers and also the land where this key infrastructure was built. Maintenance of these facilities was also achieved through the same means. When I was growing up in the village, Mondays were totally dedicated to komuniti wok and no one was allowed to do personal errands.

This brings us to the billion kina question: where did PNG go wrong? Good luck if you dare to answer this. You could write a full thesis on this topic and earn yourself a Phd.

Let me now try and justify my rants before I am accused of living in the past. My aim is to firstly demonstrate to Papua New Guineans that the development model Australia left us with worked. The lessons from that model must not be lost on the new generation of Papua New Guineans – those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat the same mistakes. Secondly, I’d like to pay tribute to the work of the early Australian Kiaps in PNG and to demonstrate the strong people-to-people linkages that our two countries share as a result of these historic connections. It will be a great shame if this bond between Australia and PNG is not maintained by the younger generations.

Em tasol.

 

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David Kitchnoge - Bank South Pacific - Lowy Institute

David Kitchnoge

Bank South Pacific

Like many young Papua New Guineans, David Kitchnoge is of mixed parentage from two PNG provinces. His parents hail from East Sepik and Morobe. After graduating with a Bachelor of Accounting from Divine Word University in 2002, he joined Deloitte’s graduate development program in 2003 and last held the position of Corporate Finance Manager before leaving and joining Bank South Pacific in April 2015. He currently works as a Financial Modeller in Corporate Banking at BSP. He is a keen follower of rural development issues and trends in PNG having come out of the village himself.