Papua New Guinea's future depends on Australia

Published by The Australian World Commentary section, Tuesday September 4 2012

By Tim Costello, World Vision Australia Chief Executive

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has just returned from a meeting with Pacific Island leaders where she announced a major aid initiative to tackle gender inequality. We know that promoting gender equity can increase economic prosperity and transform community well-being so the PM’s announcement is a great step forward. But having just visited the Pacific region, I am also struck by the immense challenge that lies ahead for our island neighbours, and the responsibility that Australia must face up to.

On the flight over to Papua New Guinea last month, (Aug) I realised that the patch of water below me carried with it a moral significance. At one shoreline, state-of-the-art healthcare for all; at the other end, complications at birth carry with them a death sentence. Papua New Guinea is our nearest neighbour, just a stone’s throw from our own coast, and yet the two nations sit 151 places apart on the Human Development Index. There is a profound challenge here.

While other countries are fast making ground to achieve the Millennium Development Goals - the world’s blueprint for tackling poverty – PNG is losing ground. Around 50 per cent of children don’t attend primary school and there are only 0.6 health workers per 1000 people. Goal 5 aims to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters by 2015, but the rate of women dying in childbirth in PNG has actually been rising. This is a shocking state of affairs given the promises made by world leaders back in the year 2000 when the MDG framework was agreed upon.

On my recent trip to PNG, I was stunned by what I saw there. At one remote health clinic in Madang province, I met Sister Grace; a woman with a beautiful, shy demeanour. Not wanting to push her own needs, it took some time to draw out her story. Finally, she explained that she worked in that tiny outpost far away from her own family, without a doctor, desperately trying to serve the needs of a vast catchment area. She worked without electricity, delivering babies by battery-operated torch light. The sacrifices she made to serve her community overwhelmed me. Not once did she complain, but in her eyes I sensed a determination. The sort of determination that says, ‘this isn’t good enough’.

And yet amidst the sadness, there is also hope. A long-running national election finally came to a peaceful end in early August, giving Prime Minister Peter O’Neill a window of hope to lead and govern. PNG is on a path to rapid economic growth, but the government must ensure that growth is spread evenly throughout the country. O’Neill’s government will be measured by whether the poorest of the poor can be included in his nation’s future. Australia must seize this moment, put wind in PNG’s sails, so that the country can tackle its poverty problems in a focussed and united way.

There is also hope where you might least expect it. In Madang, I saw water and sanitation projects which meant women no longer had to walk hours to fill buckets. And I am particularly proud of the fact that World Vision, in partnership with the PNG government, is now working in 20 provinces with a tuberculosis eradication program.

PNG has the highest rate of TB in the world so tackling this disease is extraordinarily important to the future of the country. Earlier this year, we began an AusAID-funded program to control drug-resistant tuberculosis in PNG’s Western Province and already we’re seeing a significant rise in the number of patients starting treatment. It’s still early days, but the key to the program’s success is really getting out into the community, helping people recognise the symptoms and access the care they need, and encouraging sufferers to continue with the arduous task of a 6-month treatment plan. World Vision also works closely with the PNG government to help strengthen their capacity to respond to the needs of the community. Ultimately, it is in our national interest, as well as PNG’s, that we find a solution to this problem.

Australia remains the biggest global donor to the Pacific. Over the next four years, Australia plans to increase aid to the Pacific region by around 37 percent, from $1.17 billion in 2012-13 to $1.6 billion by 2015-16. This is to be applauded. At the same time, there are many challenges to overcome. PNG is the world’s most linguistically diverse nation (with 800 languages), its terrain is mountainous, 80 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and there are no highways to transport goods. Many villages can only be reached by foot. It makes delivering aid extremely difficult, and it means development agencies get less ‘bang for their buck’.

Despite this, there are many things we can do to help. A recent report by the Burnet Institute showed that expansion of community-based health education services, like the ones World Vision supports, could save half of the 9000 children under five who die each year in PNG. The people of Papua New Guinea are our neighbours. We share a common history and for many Australians, a common culture. It is confronting to face the inequality that divides us, but we must. A country’s future depends on it.

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