Confessions of an adviser

Pro-independence t-shirts on sale at Bel Isi Park, Buka, Bougainville, 2019
Pro-independence t-shirts on sale at Bel Isi Park, Buka, Bougainville, 2019 (Gordon Peake)

Gordon Peake’s marvellous new book Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation is based on the four years he spent in Bougainville as an Australian aid-funded adviser, from 2016 to 2019. It is both entertaining and insightful.

Peake is a brilliant writer. He writes movingly about Arawa, Bougainville’s once booming, now decaying mining town. A major preoccupation is Beatrice Blackwood, the pioneering British anthropologist who spent 18 months in Bougainville around 1930, and whose 600-page book, letters and adventures are brought back to life for us.

And yet, for all its fascinating and often amusing accounts and anecdotes, Unsung Land is a disturbing read. The author’s job was to help the Bougainville government “draw down” those powers the national Papua New Guinean government has already (in fact long ago) agreed it could have. Despite its aspirations for independence, the Bougainville government is not interested in the business of draw down, and Peake is not sure what he is achieving. “[W]e were here to help, but were we helping?”, he asks forlornly at one point. Other programs of support to Bougainville that delivered more tangible help, such as grants for water and sanitation projects, “seemed to be faring much better in terms of impact and effectiveness” than the advisory work he was engaged in.

Peake writes illuminatingly and convincingly about the theory of adviser effectiveness, saying that one can only be effective “when paired with something else”, namely someone who actually wants the advice, and is able to act on it. Such pairings were almost completely missing in Bougainville. The government was “stone-broke”  and “inert”. There were “[p]rofound structural issues with the public service”, to the extent that “it was difficult to locate people to work with”.

Towards the end of the book, Peake defends the sort of advisory work he does as “long-haul, much needed, foundational but unheralded”. But it is hard to see a strong basis for this positive assessment in the pages that precede it.

The bottom line is that there just isn’t political interest in effective government in Bougainville. In such a scenario, “trying to conjure up a government through the production of ever more complex plans and detailed policies”  – the work of the team of 15 that Peake was part of – is a recipe only for frustration and failure.

The lack of interest in building an effective state in Bougainville is linked, Peake suggests, to the region’s social structure, and the pre-eminence of its clans. In Bougainville, as in the rest of PNG, politicians are elected not on the basis of national (or regional) policy but on local issues. Without political support for state building, that project will flounder.

The paradox that arises is why, if all politics is so local, support for independence is so strong. If, as Peake concludes, independence will not make a material difference to the lives of Bougainvilleans, why did 98.3% of them vote for it in the 2019 referendum? There must surely be a strong Bougainvillean identity, but not one that is strong enough to support nation building.

Peake’s take on Bougainville, like his take on technical assistance, is affectionate but again downbeat. Normally disillusionment follows independence; in the case of Bougainville, the move to independence has taken so long that this sequence has been reversed. 15 years of “cheerless peace” have passed since the end of the civil war. A “pensive sadness” covers much of the region. The administration is already bogged down in corruption, and disputes over corruption.

Peake emphasises the lack of international support for Bougainville’s independence as a cause for the slow progress towards it, but it seems to me that the more important factor is that PNG doesn’t want Bougainville to break away, and it is unclear which side will prevail. Even if independence seems inevitable after the overwhelming yes vote, no one knows when it will be – it could take another 20 years. In this context of great uncertainty, the best option for other countries is to stay neutral.

I have said that this book is downbeat, but I would also say that it is honest. In this regard, the author has done us all a great favour. I am not against the use of technical assistance in aid, but the question does need to be asked whether the environment in which the advisers would be or are working is conducive to that work making a difference. In many contexts, including in Bougainville, it clearly is not.

Given this, when Peake writes that Australian support to Bougainville has, since he left, shifted away from advisory to “the support of organisations in Bougainville that provide practical assistance”, it sounds like a move in the right direction to me. And yet this is hardly a general trend. Australia’s new government is preparing a new aid policy, but it has already declared that the first focus of this policy will be “building effective, accountable states that can sustain their own development”. The lack of realism in this goal will be evident to anyone who reads Unsung Land. It is a book to be read for enjoyment, for understanding, and for better aid policy.

Postscript: I had written this review when I came across an Abt Associates invitation to tender to provide aid-funded training for Bougainvillian public servants and MPs, both in Bougainville and in Australia. The intent of the training is to “develop a cadre of ethical and accountable leaders that have the capability (and the motivation) to collaborate, lead and manage the delivery of equitable government services to all citizens of Bougainville”. And so it goes. Peake comments at one point in his book that “the lure of the [aid-funded] trip… sometimes felt like the defining impetus behind bureaucratic decision making” in Bougainville.

98.3% of valid votes in the Bougainville referendum supported independence; that was 97.7% of the total votes cast.

Gordon Peake’s Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation: Journeys in Bougainville is free to download at ANU Press.

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.


  • I have not read Gordon Peake’s book, Confessions of an adviser, but I find his observations reported by Professor Howes very instructive.

    Peake’s comments about Bougainville resonate loud and clear. In my view, they could just as validly be applied to any province in Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. If that is a fair call, and I would argue it is, then what does that tell us about the stated aim of Australia’s new aid program?

    I think Peake is correct when he ascribes the disconnect between PNG nation building activities and those responsible for implementation to the influence of clans.

    Papua New Guinea has been described as a country comprising more than 6,000 clan groups, 836 languages and 22 provinces. The missing emphasis is the fact that more than ninety percent of PNG land and much of its productive waters is under the traditional ownership of clan groups that have maintained their independent way of life for centuries.

    Traditional land ownership is power. While land is often described as communal, in reality decisions affecting the allocation and use of land is in the hands of a relatively few traditionally powerful families and sub clan groups who might be described as head custodians.

    At least eighty-five percent of the population of nine or more million people lives on land that is governed by tradition practices and for the foreseeable future the majority of the population will remain dependent upon their clan’s land to build a house, grow food, raise their children and make a little money.

    The use of customary land is not free. Everyone who receives permission to build and grow their food on a portion is bound to acknowledge the head custodian or custodial line by way of feast giving and other actions of reciprocity on a regular basis.

    For most rural and many urban dwellers, meeting traditional obligations to maintain access to garden land, fresh water, fishing areas with ongoing tenure for your family and descendants is the central theme driving their lives.

    Public servants who work in urban settings are more likely to be preoccupied with these matters than official business that lands on their desk. In practice, this places them under unrelenting pressure to do whatever is needed to meet traditional obligations and demands.

    Within this environment the business of government, which usually relates to people and clans the public servant is not related to, often takes a back seat.

    Peake also reports that the Bougainville government was broke. The same could be said for the provincial administrations of the other twenty-one provinces. Administrations that are responsible for delivering education, health, law and order and infrastructure services.

    Given this reality the machinery of government at all levels has little or no bearing on the lives of rural people. They remain largely self-sufficient on their land under the traditional practices of their forebears.

    So where does this leave our understanding of government, governance and services delivered for all in the best interests of the common good?

    In truth, our vision of a high performing public service staffed by people who deliver value for money outcomes and services to the majority of the people without prejudice, fear or favour for the benefit of all, is laughable. This is a creation of our making and like the cane toad may be considered an inappropriate introduction into the environment.

    It is not surprising that Peake reports it “was difficult to find someone (of like mind) to work with” and “there wasn’t any interest in facilitating effective government.” I would ask the question, “effective” within who’s world view?

    That some programs such as water and sanitation projects, seemed to fare better in terms of impact and effectiveness should come as no surprise. The benefits are delivered at community level.

    And, as Peake concludes, if independence is unlikely to make a material difference to the lives of Bougainvilleans, why 98% voted for it is also unsurprising.

    When protecting the land and resources of your ancestors for yourself and your descendants guides one’s life, the tragic consequences that ensued courtesy of a foreign owned mine in association with a government across the Solomon Sea whose authority you do not recognise, cutting ties with the latter is a sine qua non.

    So where does this leave Australia’s stated aim to focus aid policy on building effective accountable states that can sustain their own development? I do not pretend to know the answer but riding roughshod over traditional societies is not one of them.

    There needs to be a proper channel for truth to speak to power and for traditional systems of governance to be recognised.

    There is an urgent need for the “people” to be made true partners in nation building: a two-way street that incorporates the contribution of each of the more than 6,000 clans towards solutions on their land rather than the Waigani centric, top down, one size fits all model that has demonstrably failed the majority of the population for the past fifty years.

    I trust the powers that be in Canberra will listen a great deal more earnestly to what the end users, the stakeholders, customers and beneficiaries of their plans before launching into another generational round of activities that can so easily result in more harm than good.

  • I’ve spoken to Bougainville politicians and bureaucrats, who often blame PNG government of failing to transfer the powers agreed in the Peace Agreement (and PNG Constitution).

    Gordon Peake suggests the Bougainville government wasn’t interested in the drawdown either.

    Is it a case where neither government is not interested in transferring powers?

    Transfer of power is a very important matter to some Bougainville elites. In fact they will argue that the 97.7% (not 98.4%) vote for independence is a result of PNG government’s failure to transfer powers and/or rebuild the infrastructures destroyed during the crisis during the 15 years following the peace agreement.

    However, when you speak to the grassroots, they’ll say their government is corrupt, and mismanages grants given by the national government.

    Why Bougainville voted for independence varies depending on who you ask. Whilst ‘some’ politicians blame it on national government’s failure to transfer of powers, veterans of the conflict would say the they’d vote for independence regardless.

    The support for independence is still strong. But may be too early though. From internal revenue to infrastructure and bureaucracy, it’s just not sufficient to sustain an independent Bougainville.

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