Shifting in-line in Papua New Guinea

Walking in-line (image: Flickr/kylesteed)

The PNG Prime Minister has released a plan to revamp Australian aid. In 2016, he says, “Papua New Guinea will move to a model where our partners will be welcome to fund positions within our Government.” It sounds radical, but it’s not a new idea. In fact, it is one that various people, including myself, have been advocating for some time. I was a co-author of the 2010 Review of the Australia-PNG Development Cooperation Treaty (DCT) (along with Eric Kwa and Soe Lin). We noted that “Using Australian aid to fund in-line positions would be a return to earlier days, when budget support was often used for this purpose.” We also quoted from a synthesis by Lynn Pieper of a set of interviews with eminent former PNG civil servants, that suggested that moving away from this model was a mistake. Back in 2004, Lynn wrote:

“[After independence], expatriate personnel were in contracted, line positions, subject to normal lines of command, discipline, and public service ethics. The shift to off-line, advisory support during the 1980s, whilst a well-intentioned part of the localisation process, ‘was a step backwards’ in the opinion of interviewees. Apart from being much more expensive, it has created a feeling of condescension between ‘advisers’ and their ‘counterparts’; reduced sustainability prospects by separating the work done by advisers from the ‘normal’ work of departments; created a dependency by Departmental Heads on using advisers to fix problems rather than training nationals to learn the job by doing it; destroyed the collegiate sense that previously existed (‘we used to work and socialise together’); and eroded any sense of pride in achievements – counterparts do not have any sense of ownership of results, and advisers today ‘are not long term stayers’.” (Pieper, 2004, p.3)

We also commented that the in-line model had been effectively used by another small resource-rich country, Botswana. We quoted from Tony Land, who in 2002 summarised the Botswana approach as follows (and then went on to praise its effectiveness):

“TA personnel [were] generally assigned to established posts (line positions) rather than to projects or advisory positions; and TA personnel are contracted by, and [were] responsible to the government in the first instance, and to the sponsoring donor second.”

Since our 2010 report, Australia has experimented with in-line positions, rather than embraced the approach. Now is the time for an embrace. The time is right not only because the recipient wants it, but because Australia is in the process of redesigning and putting out to tender two major projects, one for governance [pdf] and one for law and justice. These are big projects – $450 million for governance and $90 million for law and justice, both over five years – that will define how Australia gives aid in these sectors for years to come. As currently drafted, they are adviser-heavy. In-line does not rate a mention.

A change to an in-line approach would not be easy. First, if it is to be mainstreamed, it can’t be around a model of employing Australian government officials to take PNG government positions. There are too many sensitivities around sovereignty and spying, on the PNG side, and around diplomatic immunity, on the Australian side, for that to be sustainable. So, rather than relying on the AFP, for example, the PNG Government would have to go to the market for expat police.

Second, there would be concerns around corruption. Australia would rightly be worried about paying the salary of someone who could be overseeing a corrupt department or agency. These risks could be mitigated by the donor being involved in the selection process, and by a contractual commitment that donor-funded staff would have to report suspicions of corruption to both the PNG Government and donors. But Australia should also be realistic. A move to in-line positions won’t eliminate corruption, but it will do a better job than the advisory model, where it is all too easy to keep well-intentioned advisers out of the loop.

Third, hiring a large number of expatriates would carry a heavy administrative burden. Here, the services of a contracting company could be drawn on to help with hiring, and also to provide “expat provisions” such as housing and security.

It won’t be easy, but it could be done, and it’s time to change. Many advisers have worked hard and some have been able to make a difference, but in general aid-funded personnel would be more productive if in-line. I always remember the words of a Provincial Administrator we quoted in our DCT review: “Advisers are outside the system. They find it very difficult to tell [staff] what to do. They are not attached to any position number in the civil service. They’ve got to be in the action, in the ‘tribe’, not outside.”

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre.

To read more, have a look at the 2010 DCT Review (especially Section 2) and my submission [pdf] to the 2015 Australian parliamentary inquiry into aid to PNG (especially Part D). The Lynn Pieper report is available here and is well worth a read. See also Jane Thomason’s  PNG-specific comment on this recent Devpolicy post: “TA per se is not the problem – indeed embedded TA or inline positions are badly needed – but advisers with no accountabilities often working with public servants who don’t want the advice, are a problem.”

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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.


  • This debate is over simplified. Those who work in the field will acknowledge that in practice “advising” and being “in line” are not so different. Out of respect for national sovereignty, “advisers” have until recently been encouraged to defer ultimate decision making to their national counterparts: it does not mean that advisers don’t get their “hands dirty”. To be “in line” may bring with it more formal authority but the authority can be undermined if a foreigner is unable to maintain the respect of colleagues or makes too many unpopular decisions. Personally I have worked in both capacities and have found that “in line” my authority could be subverted just as easily as my powers of persuasion as an adviser. Also, donors expect the people that they pay to show them loyalty: this potentially creates a conflict of interest because contractually an “in line” foreigner has a primary duty towards the Government of PNG. I’m not arguing against “in line” – just trying to dispel yet another “silver bullet” moment in aid policy.

  • The Foreign Affairs part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is all about people to people. The people of Australia and Papua New Guinea have shared a solid relationship for 50,000 years. Let’s hope that this latest change doesn’t mean that the ‘people’ part of this $477 million p.a. relationship is diminished or replaced by the easy option of steel, plastic and concrete. DFAT has got a bit of work to do here.

  • Thanks for this, the adviser model does set people up to fail in many instances, trying to effect change through advising others – often in the face of active or passive resistance to that change and compounded by a dysfunctional operating environment.

    But one aspect of your piece might be an assumption – that those inline positions will go to overseas experts. Some of the PM’s recent comments seem to suggest that he believes PNGeans can do the work, that there is sufficient in-country expertise available and hints that overseas personnel here for a limited time do not leave any sustainable change behind and are, “taking Papua New Guinean jobs.”

    Obviously the best person for the job would be most people’s wish but I wonder how in a highly politicised and nationalistic public service this can happen these days.

  • Given that the Australian Government has recently cut its funding to the Overseas Development Institute Fellowship Scheme (which places high-caliber junior economists into in-line positions within GoPNG ministries and is highly valued by all participating ministries) due to the fact the fellows were not accountable to Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, it would be surprising to see them move towards an in-line approach. That said, perhaps pressure from GoPNG will be enough to force a move away from the excessively costly and relatively ineffective (though not without value) TA program.

  • it’s effectively what was in place prior to the increase in project and then program assistance which progressively replaced budget aid in the early 1990s. In those days there were many overseas contract officers who were in inline positions on salaries well below the subsequent consulting rates, and who had direct responsibilities within the system, just like their PNG counterpart staff. At the time is was strongly suggested by some that the shift to project/program assistance, with all its associated program planning and oversight overheads, shuold take a different form. The Australians were increasingly concerned about weak accountability over budget aid by the Government of PNG, so introduced the programs partly as a way to increase accountability to the Australian (and PNG) public, but the programs greatly increased demands on the relatively weak capacity of the PNG government, especially with many staff being taken out of central agencies also to help manage the program from the AIDAB/AusAID/DFAT side. The suggestion was for a more compromise arrangement, which would still leave the PNG Government with some continued flexibility where to allocated funds and staff – and between overseas and local staff (as occurred under the previous Budget support), but to establish chains of oversight and accountability over those components of funding provided for specific activity, including the capacity to provide some shorter term support staff for specific functions, where needed (ie advisers) to complement funding inputs for PNG and longer term contract inline staff….training and advisory functions can be very useful for various specific functions, but one needs the flexibility, to be able to include a range of human and other resources to implement service provision by government..Of course, it also requires a clear understanding of what GoPNG shuold be funding and what the development partners should fund. Core functions shuold be undertaken by GoPNG, adn should be properly budgeted and accounted for, which also requires Govt avoids putting its money into status projects etc, and leaving core services often to be funded by donors (sometimes through church services etc)…the role of development partners should particularly be to assist in developing training and capacity building of the PNG institutions (and some physical long as GoPNG commits to its maintenance); but human and institutional development by its nature does involve a fair amount of human input, without development partners being unduly burdened with funding routine staffing; but this input shuold be able to be provided from a range of PNG and overseas sources -including overseas volunteers, e.g. for teacher/teacher training etc, as required and as most cost effective…. But the shift needs to be well thought out and in close consultation..none of this silly business of announcing in November that one education system would replace another, before the successor curriculum has been prepared or teachers trained etc…!

  • I agree with much of what’s been said. In my experience over nearly 15 years (2000-2014) at provincial level in PNG health as a Project Manager and TA, TA, PNG needs TA. Again, in my experience, this is both recognised and highly valued by local counterparts. With regard to ‘accountability’, the issue is not that TAs are ‘unaccountable’. Papuan New Guineans are rightly concerned that Advisers work for and are accountable to donors etc not Papua New Guinea. They don’t ‘own’ TAs and often talk of being sidelined, bypassed, ignored and reduced to ‘spectators’. The current model for providing TA and other forms of aid is also not cost-effective. I’m not sure we’ve learnt the lessons of the past decade or so – or that we’re even listening – and I’m disappointed more Papua New Guineans, especially from provinces, who are responsible for service delivery, are not contributing to the discussion and speaking out.

  • I am in agreement with Stephen Howes’ analysis of strengthening governance and law and justice in PNG. I was one of the former civil servants in PNG right after independence (1980s-90s) and the process of training and capacity building for PNG public servants (succession planning) at that time was at its peak. I felt I was properly trained as I was well monitored and groomed. The preparation was to train as Assistant Secretary (AS) in all Divisions, and as I gained confidence I was moved to another Divisions in succession every three months or so to prepare me to move into the next level as First Assistant Secretary (FAS). At that time contracted civil servants were not only Australians but a mixture of expatriates from various countries. There were professions from New Zealand, Canada, USA, India, Singapore and so on who mingled with PNG nationals as colleagues rather than advisors. In-house training was on-going and the public service was thriving. There was enthusiasm in what we did – we were motivated despite the little salaries that I received for my efforts I was happy. I have visited PNG recently (from April – June 2015) and found the civil service had become stagnant; it lacked motivation and purpose – that is to serve the communities. Where I originate two three government funded projects had failed (the time I was there) as civil servants were unable to deliver; partly because of the rampant corruption in the procurement process, and partly because politicians kept stealing the show of service delivery, practically replacing civil servants. Clearly, civil servants in PNG have little purpose in service delivery which could be the impetus for their lack of motivation and enthusiasm. In other words, politicians in their quest to gain electoral voting support have perpetuated the demise of the PNG civil service. As long as corruption and the politicisation of the civil service exist, the Australian taxpayers money (AUD450m) will be wasted.

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