The dangers of development NGOs sacrificing accuracy for advocacy

Written by Joanne Wallis

voicesbougainvillecoverFrom 1989 to 1997, the Bougainville region of Papua New Guinea experienced a damaging conflict. While grievances arising from the massive Panguna copper mine are often characterised as the instigator, the causes were complex; the conflict was partly a war of secession and also involved intra-Bougainvillean tensions and criminal activity.

In 1997, Australia and New Zealand led a ‘light’ intervention to facilitate a peace process, which culminated in a peace agreement [pdf] in 2001. This agreement granted Bougainville autonomy and Bougainvilleans the right to vote on their political future in a referendum to be held between 2015 and 2020 (assuming certain conditions are met).

As the referendum approaches it is not surprising that the future of the mine, which has remained closed since the start of the conflict, has attracted attention. This has recently manifested in a report by Jubilee Australia, a NGO that purportedly ‘protects and promotes human rights and prevents environmental destruction for impoverished individuals and groups adversely impacted by the actions of Australian companies, financial institutions and the Australian government’.

The report, Voice of Bougainville, was released in September and has attracted media interest (examples here, here and here).

The report claims that researchers uncovered ‘near universal’ Bougainvillean opposition to reopening of the mine, and identified three reasons. First, the negative environmental and social consequences associated with the original mine. Second, the role the mine played in sparking the conflict. Third, the claimed lack of meaningful reconciliation and justice. It also found that interview respondents were ‘deeply critical’ of consultations concerning the proposed reopening of the mine and expressed ‘unanimous dissatisfaction’ with the peace process.

The achievements of the Bougainville parties and the Papua New Guinea government in negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement, creating the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and avoiding a large-scale resumption of conflict should be acknowledged. Important to this has been the sophistication and restraint of Bougainvillean leaders, and the strength and resilience of the Bougainville people. Bougainvilleans’ strong tradition of reconciliation has also resolved many (but not all) tensions and done much to bridge societal divisions. Yet this is not a picture presented by the report.

Despite the fact that research for the report only involved interviews with 65 Bougainvilleans and one focus group of 17 individuals residing near the mine site – a fraction of Bougainville’s 300,000 people – their responses are presented as broadly representative. Unusually, the specific interview questions are not provided, so there is no way to verify whether they were leading or whether the potential bias of the researchers was influential. Tellingly, all nine landowner associations from around the mine site have demanded an apology from Jubilee Australia for what they characterise as the unrepresentative and divisive nature of the report.

The report is critical of the ABG, yet there appears to have been little attempt to interview or obtain relevant documents from the ABG. This criticism is unfair given that the ABG operates in a post-conflict environment in which almost all infrastructure and state apparatus were destroyed, and that it faces serious power, resource and capacity constraints. While the report implies that the ABG has been pushing for the mine to reopen, the ABG appears conscious that the mine helped instigate the conflict and has conducted a long and inclusive consultation process with the affected landowners and wider society to establish whether they want the mine to reopen, and if they do, on what terms. Reports from these consultations indicate that the majority of Bougainvilleans do want to mine to reopen, with safeguards to protect against the social, environmental and economic problems that arose from the original mine. Indeed, the ABG has questioned the accuracy of the report and called both for it to be withdrawn and for Jubilee Australia to apologise.

The report also insufficiently situates its findings in a broader context. The ABG is heavily reliant on Papua New Guinean funding, but it is a condition of the peace agreement that Bougainville achieve ‘fiscal self-reliance’ before possible independence. It is difficult to see how this could be achieved without the mine reopening. Despite this, the report claims that respondents identified that ‘there exist many other promising economic activities that could represent a solid source of revenue’. There is no detailed attempt to examine the potential and limitations of these alternatives.

The report highlights the dangers of development NGOs sacrificing accuracy for advocacy. It appears that Jubilee Australia has uncritically accepted that the anti-mining voices of a small number of interview respondents represent those of all Bougainvilleans, perhaps because its mandate is premised on the assumption that mining activities will have an adverse impact. While it is important to acknowledge these voices (as I have done in my own work), they must be contextualised in a nuanced analysis of the full range of Bougainvillean perspectives, including from those who support reopening the mine. By only presenting part of the picture the report has given impetus to the minority of Bougainvilleans (and their international supporters) who oppose the mine. In the process Jubilee Australia has overlooked that many of these opponents are pursuing their own (sometimes ambivalent) agendas and that the report may potentially fuel tensions in the sensitive period leading up to the referendum.

Dr Joanne Wallis is a Lecturer in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.

Joanne Wallis

Dr Joanne Wallis is from the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

1 Comment

  • As someone who oversaw the production of this report, I feel compelled to respond to this blog entry. However, I do so in my independent capacity as a scholar, and not on behalf of Jubilee Australia, who will prepare their own response I am sure in the days to come.

    I appreciate that Dr Wallis has taken the time to read the report and respond to its findings. Moreover, we should all welcome scholarly critique, it enriches the conversation no end. However, for the conversation to be enriched, in my view, certain basic principles of fairness must be observed. Most critically it is not fair to invent a ‘straw man’, and it strikes me that this is what the author has done here. Wallis has fundamentally misrepresented the report’s methods and findings, so it appears to contain brash, unsupported statements, when its aims and methods are much more modest.

    In order to support this contention I will attempt to faithfully reproduce the author’s criticisms and respond to them in turn.

    1. ‘Despite the fact that research for the report only involved interviews with 65 Bougainvilleans and one focus group of 17 individuals residing near the mine site – a fraction of Bougainville’s 300,000 people – their responses are presented as broadly representative’. This is incorrect. The research did not use randomised sampling and so never claims to be representative of a broader population. Its objective was to explore a range of deeply perceptual issues relating to history, heritage, and future. It was a phenomenological study, and there was no base from which to begin. So we selected an exploratory case study method, using a combination of purposive and snowball sampling. This is clearly stated in the methods section, so I struggle to see how there could be any confusion.

    2. ‘The report claims that researchers uncovered “near universal” Bougainvillean opposition to reopening of the mine’. Once again this is incorrect. What the report actually says is that those interviewed expressed near universal opposition. This is a very different assertion indeed, and bares no relation whatsoever to the much grander claims being imputed by Wallis.

    3. ‘Unusually, the specific interview questions are not provided, so there is no way to verify whether they were leading or whether the potential bias of the researchers was influential’. First, I would question the premise of this critique. Is this unusual? Many NGO reports, and studies published in scholarly journals, exclude interview questions for a range of good reasons. I can cite many such reports, and would be happy to if needed. This flawed premise aside, the Jubilee study employed semi-structured interviews. The advantage is that this type of interview method allows key themes to be discussed, but in a way where the conversation can assume an organic form. Key research questions/themes were included on p.50. However, inevitably, as it says on the tin, every semi-structured interview contains its own nuance that will depart from the other interviews. So invariably no one interview will conform exactly to the transcript of questions.

    4. ‘The report is critical of the ABG, yet there appears to have been little attempt to interview or obtain relevant documents from the ABG’. The report relays views from the 82 participants, some of these accounts are critical in part of the ABG. However, it must be noted that that the study’s objective was to inquire into the perception and experience of participants ; it did not attempt to adjudicate on fact. It is unfair, therefore, to judge the report’s content by a yard stick that is entirely inappropriate. The same critique might be levelled at the following observation by Wallis: ‘the report claims that respondents identified that “there exist many other promising economic activities that could represent a solid source of revenue”. There is no detailed attempt to examine the potential and limitations of these alternatives’. Once again the report explored experience and perception; it was simply outside the terms of reference to deliberate on important issues like alternative development models. It is hardly fair to critique a report, for not being able to resolve all the questions under the sun in one sitting.

    5. ‘The achievements of the Bougainville parties and the Papua New Guinea government in negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement, creating the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and avoiding a large-scale resumption of conflict should be acknowledged. Important to this has been the sophistication and restraint of Bougainvillean leaders, and the strength and resilience of the Bougainville people. Bougainvilleans’ strong tradition of reconciliation has also resolved many (but not all) tensions and done much to bridge societal divisions. Yet this is not a picture presented by the report’. Actually, the report explicitly acknowledges these praiseworthy efforts. It also points to areas still in need of redress. See p.12 ‘The innovative synthesis of top-down and bottom up measures has been widely praised in the peacebuilding literature. However, the latter research suggests some caution still needs to be exercised when gauging the effectiveness of the peace process on Bougainville’.

    6. ‘The report highlights the dangers of development NGOs sacrificing accuracy for advocacy. It appears that Jubilee Australia has uncritically accepted that the anti-mining voices of a small number of interview respondents represent those of all Bougainvilleans, perhaps because its mandate is premised on the assumption that mining activities will have an adverse impact’. First, this criticism might be inverted, and instead it could be argued that the author has uncritically accepted the critique of President Momis, without examining the report to see whether indeed this very public criticism actually has any basis in fact. I struggle to find any other explanation, given how explicit the report was on its methods, objective, and limitations. Second, the accusation that the research team had a prior mandate which it subsequently attempted to achieve through massaging its findings, is arguably one of the most serious accusations to make. It is startling the author has made such a red-button criticism without forwarding any evidence.

    To conclude.

    The issues raised in this report about trauma, marginalisation, heritage, land transition and future, are important. I found the data confronting, and fascinating. Bougainville is a wonderfully rich place with many conversations going on. This report captures one window into this frenetic, complex conversation, many others exist and should be explored using a range of methods.

    And I would genuinely like to see dialogue with the ABG on the report’s findings, take a less polarising form. I have a deep admiration for the achievements of Bougainville, they have a remarkable story to tell. And sometimes some of these stories will have critical edges to them, but if we can accept that there is a place for critical thought, then this can only create a more diverse conversation in the long run which will enrich the future.

    I also appreciate the time taken by Wallis to critique the report. However, while scholarly critique is absolutely vital, it strikes me as equally vital that research is judged according to its stated objectives, methods and limits, and not against imagined methods or limits imputed on it by critics.

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