The UN system's vision for Papua New Guinea

06 Apr 2009

Back in 2005, soon after Dr. Jacqui Badcock took up the reins as UN Resident Coordinator in Papua New Guinea, it became clear that this Melanesian state faced a dangerously accelerating problem with HIV/AIDS.

The warnings were growing more urgent: in July 2004, the country’s health minister described the situation as a “devastating time bomb.” This was a defining new challenge for the UN.

Peter Piot, the head of UNAIDS, decided to visit, and the UN agencies attended a meeting of development partners to brief him. What happened next was instructive. “Every single UN agency spoke independently,” says Dr. Badcock. “Even he could see… we did not have a common vision.”

It was immediately apparent that the time was ripe for a change of working methods. So Dr. Badcock, a former Unicef official who had previously served as Resident Coordinator in Namibia, set about rebuilding the UN presence in the country, moving from an amalgam of isolated programmes towards a cohesive group of actors, organized around a shared set of goals.

The first step was to get to know each other. “We spent a year focusing on team-building. That culminated in a retreat, where we talked about team roles and dynamics,” she says.

The members socialized and participated in team building exercises long into the night; they played cooperative games-– including one where they had to find a way of lifting a tin with a rope, from one circle to another. “You all had to work together to do it,” says Dr. Badcock.

Following that, “I persuaded the team to go to a workshop on early warning and preventive measures, at the UN Staff College in Bangkok. We spent a whole week, where we had to work together and analyze the underlying issues that could potentially cause conflict (in Papua New Guinea). It gave us a common understanding of root causes; helped bring us together.”

By the following year, Dr. Badcock says, the team members felt “we at least came from a common foundation”. So when they attended a workshop to create a new UN Development Assistance Framework, they were already primed for the new thinking which was starting to spread throughout the UN system.

“There was a discussion of the UN acting as one. We all said yes! We would be a much greater force if we came together in our dialogue with the Government. By pooling our projects, we were suddenly the third or fourth largest donor in the country. We came away seeing the merits in a common programme.”

Encouragingly, when the UN presented the new direction to the Government, “they loved it, that they were being involved and in the driving seat, that we would base all our work on their medium term development strategy. That continued through the year; the result now is government really does like it as a strategy.”

So much so, adds Dr. Badcock that as the government tries to implement the Paris aid effectiveness agenda “they see the way the UN managed to come together around a common programme as a way for reflection for other partners doing the same.”

The UN and Papua New Guinea’s Government are now implementing One Country Programme.

Papua New Guinea is a prime candidate for a more cohesive approach to development. The country’s interior was only opened to the outside world in the 1940s and ‘50s, and even today its capital, Port Moresby, has no roads to any other major towns.

The country is scattered across dozens of islands and boasts more than 800 languages. The majority of its population lives in rural areas with less than 20 per cent of the population in urban centers. Getting around the country is still not easy, and most of the international presence has traditionally focused on the capital.

On the other hand the country is rich in natural resources, abundant in copper, forests and hydrocarbons, and many external actors are interested in their bounty.

Papua New Guinea is a young country. In only a couple of decades it has come face to face with a host of modern problems and is urgently seeking a vision forward.

“They didn’t have that transition of slowly accumulating things we now accept,” says Dr. Badcock. “For example, diet has changed radically over recent years. The country has really been catapulted into the 21st century."

The challenges are intense. There is a constant threat of tribal wars, conflict over natural resources, family- and gender-based violence, disease, and regular natural disasters.

On the other hand, some political stability is emerging. The last government completed a full term for the first time since independence.

The UN’ system’s role, in the meantime, has grown significantly. Collaborating with major regional partners such as Australia, the UN has found an important niche.

“The role the UN can play is to provide an alternate forum, a global view on many development issues; a neutral brokerage role between the government and donors in general,” says

Dr. Badcock. “A previous secretary of planning described it as ‘walking the white line’. We co-chair a group of donors; talk through an aid effectiveness agenda.”

Perhaps the major task the UN faces now is to increase its engagement with the population and help the government forge an inclusive long-term vision. “It’s very challenging. The capital doesn’t connect to any provincial capital by road. The temptation, if you’re not careful, is to focus interventions at the national government level at Port Moresby.”

To that end, the UN has identified four regional centers where it needs to reach out, and is building its capacity there.

“There is a need to bring state and community together better. That we felt was a big gap; there is very weak service delivery, very little communication upwards. There isn’t a voice from the people. We felt that was something we could have a role in… to try and empower people.”

What does it take to coordinate the UN in such challenging circumstances?

“You’ve got to work with diverse views, sometimes accept views contrary to yours for the greater good; and be a good listener. You have to be able to craft people’s thinking,” says Dr. Badcock.

“One colleague sometimes teases me, and says, in a joking way, I’m like a school-ma’am! You have to be able to craft, but also be decisive.”

Does being a woman make it more difficult? Not “as long as you’re qualified, able to stand your ground,” says Dr. Badcock, who when she arrived was the only woman in the entire group of development partners in PNG, although now there are more.

Perhaps most importantly, passion is the motivating force. “I tend to be fairly passionate when I totally buy into an issue, or there is something that needs urgent redressing, such as HIV/AIDS and the gender issues in Papua New Guinea,” she says. “But I have also always been passionate about how One UN can work together, and I think that can help translate into a dynamic team.”