A snapshot of a district struggling against the odds

The MP for Obura Wonenara (The Honorable Mehrra Kipefa) [at centre, in high-vis top] with the District Development Authority Board and District Administration Team, in their newly issued uniforms, December 2015 (image: Bennie Atigini, CARE PNG)

CARE’s Integrated Community Development Project (ICDP) has been implementing activities in collaboration with district and local level government (LLG) authorities, as well as local NGOs and communities, in three disadvantaged districts of Papua New Guinea for some years.

The results of CARE’s collaborations in Obura Wonenara, the district where the project has been implementing the longest, are impressive and include: 7,000 children enrolled in school, who would not otherwise have had the opportunity; eight new village courts (which include female magistrates and clerks) where there were none before; establishment and training of ward development committees, and local identification of ward development priorities for a population of about 78,000; LLG project funding allocations for ward priorities; government officers being more engaged with grassroots communities; nearly 18,000 people with greatly improved access from the construction of seven footbridges (the majority funded through provincial and district development funds); and people in the most remote locations eating more protein-rich diets, and growing subsistence crop varieties that are more drought tolerant.

CARE’s ICDP is in the first year of what is anticipated to be a five-year project expansion and consolidation in its three target districts. What follows is a snapshot of the working environment for our government partners in one of these districts.

It had been some time since we last had a courtesy call and update meeting with our partners in Obura Wonenara, so we planned a short trip. Ringing ahead the week before our planned visit, we confirmed that we would be able to meet with the District Administrator (DA), some senior District Administration officers and LLG managers. We also arranged to meet with the local member (MP). We rang again the day before the visit to re-confirm.

Arriving as planned, we called the DA and he said to please come to his office. Here we found him in a room full of men and women – mourning mud covering their faces. He was in negotiations, with the hope of avoiding the escalation of a recent murder into tribal fighting. Apologising for our disruption to their discussions, we postponed our meeting to the next morning.

For the afternoon, we decided to take a drive to Obura, in the middle of the district, and observe how people’s food gardens were progressing as they recovered from the drought. On the way we passed the MP in the front passenger seat of a district development grant-funded police vehicle. He confirmed that we could meet with him in the morning, but not at the District Administration offices due to a two-day power cut. He was on his way to pick up the DA so that together they could visit the community where the murder had recently taken place. The week before, he and the DA had spent much of their time dealing with tribal fighting and multiple killings in another part of the district. The fighting and deaths were retaliations following a death attributed to sorcery, which the MP believes ultimately has its roots in an ongoing land dispute.

On our drive to Obura and back we observed the beautiful new food gardens people have planted. Within two to three months they will start to have a steady supply of their staple foods once again. In the meantime, despite the challenges of insect damage and some crops rotting before they ripen – and the detrimental effects of too much rain – corn, pumpkins and beans have started to ripen, creeks and springs are re-charged, and life is starting to look more hopeful.

image: Rebecca Robinson, CARE PNGWe arrived back at the Obura Wonenara District Administration office and waited for the return of the District Elementary Coordinator. He had taken a two-hour bus ride to the provincial capital that morning to visit the provincial head quarters and obtain a list of the trainee elementary teachers accepted into the PNG Education Institute (PNGEI), as well as a list of the postings for teachers for the year. He was dropped off late in the afternoon. He and I went to his office where we discussed the PNGEI list. Only one person from the district was on the list. We discussed options for finding out why others we had expected to be included weren’t – and what could be done about it. We agreed to meet early in the morning so that he could see me before the rush of teachers, who would be arriving to find out where they had been posted. I then left the administration buildings, making way for those public servants who sleep in the offices when there is no other accommodation available.

Teachers were meant to be at their schools almost two weeks previously, but their placements were only now available. Demonstrating how politicised senior public service positions have become, the provincial administration had been in disarray for months as two men and their supporters contested for the position of Provincial Administrator (PA) – one being supported strongly by the Provincial Governor. In the interim, the provincial administration had almost completely stopped functioning. One week before, a court decision had established one of the contenders as the acting PA, pending a “final decision” by the National Executive Council (cabinet). With an acting PA, critical pieces of paperwork could finally be signed off by the administration – including teacher postings.[1]

The next morning, after meeting with the elementary coordinator again (who already had a queue of teachers waiting to see him), we went to another venue to meet with the MP, DA and senior officers. Here the MP was at first busy on his mobile – trying to find out why the power had been disconnected from the district administration offices, and what needed to be done to get it reconnected. He and the DA and LLG managers were also preoccupied with finding a way to have the printer, used for printing official district cheques, fixed.

During the meeting we discussed plans and schedules, and were frankly updated on various matters. For example, last year the district should have received K10 million in development grant funds (DSIP – District Services Improvement Program). It should also have had access to a further K5 million for additional health and education development projects. The district apparently submitted the required proposals in order to access and use additional health and education funds, but had not yet received any allocations. The MP and DA said they had heard that the education and health development grant was now going to be reduced by half, but they weren’t hopeful that any of this would actually come through. By the end of last year, the district had received K6 million of the K10 million DSIP  grant that it was meant to receive, and none of the K5 million in health and education development grants. That is, it had only received 40 per cent of the available development grants. In November of 2015, the district had received official financial instructions that K2 million of the development funds it had received could be used for drought response. In the words of the MP, ‘it was too late – we already had budget allocations for our DSIP, it was really too late. We found little bits and pieces of money to help with our longer term drought response.’

The situation that the Obura Wonenara District Administration and MP find themselves in is not uncommon. They know the intricacies of the problems they face in more intimate detail than anyone. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, they keep working towards the changes that they envision for their district. Contributing to their positive vision is their continuing partnership with CARE to improve the ability of political and administrative governments to collaborate to make sustained, positive change for and with the people of Obura Wonenara.

Rebecca Robinson is the Integrated Community Development Program (ICDP) Manager for CARE International in PNG.

[1] Since writing, the PA position has changed again, and consequently the position of Provincial Director of Education has also changed, potentially nullifying all current teacher postings signed off by the previous Director.

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Rebecca Pepame Robinson

Rebecca Pepame Robinson is a Community Development and Governance Consultant focused on Papua New Guinea.


  • This is how the big picture in Waigani does not translate into better services for people in the rural sites; it’s across the country, much worse in places like Western and Gulf, Sepiks and the small Islands.

    We cannot blame the systems or institutions or policies that they are not working favourably for the rural people, it’s how the commitment from groups and individuals who are tasked and duty-bound to serve are weak or failed to deliver. Adding to this failure is the insufficient allocation of resources like funding to the district or education system in the Province.

    The promised K10m-K15m DSIP funds only exist on papers, not that much of money landed in the district account at one point in a year, the reason is known to the local MP or the DA. However, groups and individuals at the district and others at the Provincial office failed to make good and efficient use of the limited funding that comes in, they tend to suck on the limited government funding as well with false claims, paper services and one day company style.

    So the real need like schools, aid posts and roads has gone from bad to worse. This further crippled student access to basic education, sick people die from communicable diseases and poor road system. It is the people who are tasked and duty-bound to do something like the DA and district staff, the MP and people at the Provincial office that is simply not doing their job. Even if they do their job, it was without or with limited funding.

    Apart from the government provided services like schools and aid posts, the only services that will continue to function and provide needs like basic education and medication will be the churches run or NGOs set up facilities in the rural location.

    Still the rural people hope for the best every time and lived with what they can make.

  • Rebecca’s story was filled with great insights and it is terrific that an Australian NGO is working at the local level in PNG. When reading through the story, it made me reflect on whether I had done enough to integrate such on-the-ground realities when providing high level budget and economic advice in the PNG Treasury (or in the Australian Treasury advising on PNG). The picture painted is one of great individual resilience and perserverance in the face of regular system failure. And this is where I would possibly differ from Elizabeth in that I consider the difficulties in appointing teachers, or the disbursement of budgeted DSIP funds down to the district level, or the appalling response to the drought, as indicative of system failures. Frankly, the people at district level deserve better. We have gone through centuries of change to build governance systems, with more balanced incentives and accountabilities, and we’ve learned some lessons along the way (although probably not on refugee policy where I strongly agree with Elizabeth’s comments). These lessons can, respectfully, be adapted and shared. Rebecca’s story is a real reminder of the challenges faced, including the extraordinary complexity of pressures that flow from the wantok system, at the local level. These must be built into good policy design to support positive change for the people of Obura Wonenara.

    • I agree with you Paul re totally people deserving better and I agree with the system failures. I should have acknowledged that too. I’m not sure we are at odds on anything though. My main point was that Rebecca has told the other narrative that rarely gets told and that we need to remember that people trying to do reforms are themselves dealing with massive challenges, just as our foremothers and forefathers did in our respective countries and that PNG will work this out and that it will take time. One of the lessons we seem unwilling to share is how long it has taken us to reform (as you also note) and for many people in some remote communities in Australia their stories are as sad and challenging as some here. We often behave as though Australia changed quickly. It didn’t. And if you are a woman it is still taking a very very long time despite the positive changes!

  • You have told the story of the daily challenges facing good officers and leaders from Provinces Districts, LLGs in PNG with kindness and honesty Rebecca. This is the reality of the task they all face as they try to improve the delivery of services to the people of PNG for the Government of PNG. GoPNG leaders know these realities too well – they also deal with them at a national level and international level.They are likely part of the chain of phone calls between people in their home village and province dealing with those local events and challenges – most of the GoPNG parliamentary members are from those areas too (over 80%). If we are to make any difference here as expats or international agencies/companies/donors we need to respect the reality of what you have described and work with it, not criticise and judge it. PNG is finding its own way and leading change and it won’t look like or be anything like Australia, the US, NZ, the UK, Europe, Singapore, etc any time soon. But then – we took the best part of two centuries to get where we are now. And we have our own challenges – some of them enormous, such as refugees and the way we fail to work respectfully with our own Indigenous communities. And then we expect PNG to help us deal with one of those – the damage done to PNG’s image, in the name of helping keep Australians safe and our borders protected, is going to be one of our most shameful historical reflections any time soon. Manus is truly beautiful – like the rest of PNG. How did we allow such harm to be done to PNG? Thank you for naming the challenges the people of PNG deal with every day in their unique and wonderful ways. But even then I fear some readers will interpret your alternative narrative of dealing with challenges as evidence only of failure rather than of resilience and perseverance.

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