von Wolfgang Zechner
Coronabedingt zurück vom Einsatz: Gillian Woltron (PNG)
Welcome back, Gillian. How does it feel to be back in Austria?
Gillian: At first it felt rather surreal, to come back to Europe, where there had been the escalation of Covid-19, described as the epicentre of the pandemic, with strict social distancing and restricted movement. But now the situation has somewhat normalised, and I feel I have adjusted to being back.
What do you miss most about your life in PNG? What don’t you miss?
Gillian: I miss the genuine, down to earth, simplicity in life, which the people in PNG generally express. The trust in life, the sense of the spiritual which permeates everything, from the mundane to the wonderous. People tend not to over-think nor over-complicate things (at least that was my experience). I miss the really loud and sometimes comical birds and the heart-felt singing, which we could hear every day from the cathedral opposite.
However, I am happy to leave behind the restricted freedom to wander around, and the legendary potholes in the roads!! The other side of the coin to the way of life we encountered is that personal security can be an issue in PNG. It is not advisable to go out alone (even in pairs) unless driving, and definitely not at night. There are risks of hold-ups.
Covid-19 had also been an issue in PNG. How did you experience the situation in general and in the region of your assignment?
Gillian: Regarding COVID-19 in PNG, it did not seem so evident for us as TAs in Madang. Following the first confirmed case, the prime minister ordered a state of emergency. Markets were closed as was all inter-provincial travel. Air travel was also suspended. We then worked from home as advised. However, supermarkets were open and people were walking around as usual, so there was not the appearance of fear or panic, in contrast to the news coming from Europe. We were anyway used to restricted movement outside of our compound, so there was not such a change for us in this respect. At the point of departure, there were only 4 confirmed cases, who were isolated. There has not been an increase that I am aware of, most likely due to careful monitoring and continued restrictions to entering the country.
Which moments an impressions from the time of your assignment will you remember?
Gillian: One of my fondest memories is regarding the observation of the training for facilitators in Alexishafen, not far from Madang. We were a small group of TAs, who had just arrived in PNG. Part of our in-country training was to join a team practicing to facilitate parenting programs. The participants were very accommodating, welcoming us to join them for a few days. When it was time for us to go, the group prepared a farewell song and sang for us as we departed. I remember feeling, that this was really special, their acceptance and openness to share some wonderful moments together.
What are your personal take-aways?
Gillian: What am I taking away? The idea of the “right time”.
Time, something which influences us all. Yet perception of time also has a cultural component. Discussions with colleagues from our partner organisation revealed how differences could arise in partnerships. Project management largely concerns realising the aims of a project at hand, to attain prescribed outcomes, reach targets on budget, and on time, with maximum impact.
In PNG, much emphasis is placed on the importance of relationships. Communities to which one belongs are known as Wantoks. Literally translated this means “one talk”, as in one’s tribe. Family and community bonds are held in the highest esteem, they are integral to the way of living. It is important to fulfill one’s obligations to family and village or Wantok, over other obligations. Furthermore, paying respects to village elders, or community leaders is important in establishing a common understanding and gaining support for a program. Without this recognition of respect, communication will not easily flow. In this sense, project milestones are not the objective, relationships are – being the means (and possibly leverage), to attaining an end result.
UNICEF PNG for example, must adhere to tight time frames in overseeing delivery and audits. The local implementing partner must also deal with time scales operating through a different perspective, as well as factors such as accessibility to target groups and transport challenges. Many rural areas can take several days to reach, even without heavy rains impacting passage by road or river, or lack of transport means.
With the 2030 Agenda, the emphasis of development cooperation underlines the importance of partnership together with the participation of stakeholders at all levels. This requires a shift in policy and practice in the engagement of beneficiaries, not merely as those who benefit as recipients from the action of others, but as partners, as actors, in the process of change.
Precedence in PNG is given to interrelatedness, a concept which the SDGs are also driving. – our interconnectedness – socially, ecologically and economically. Our HORIZONT3000 knowledge platform – KNOWHOW3000 advocates: “Let’s bring all of our knowledge and all of our experiences together. Together we know more. Together we achieve more.”
Reflecting on my albeit short time in PNG, I feel that If we can apply real exchange in partnerships, not only in knowledge management but to all areas of development cooperation, where cooperation is not just working alongside each other, but expresses as a balanced synergy. Then perhaps we can glean the best of both in cultural approaches to collaboration, where (global) North meets South, project management meets change management.
PNG in 3 words?
Gillian: “Gutpela Sindaun“ which means livelihood, or prosperous life or quite simply a good life – is the basis of good for the family, the province and country. Why, because it reminds me of what the country is striving for.
About Gillian Woltron
Having completed a masters in International Development, as a mature student, Gillian was enthusiastic to work in the field of development cooperation. Prior to joining HORIZONT3000, she gained 18 years of experience within the third sector supporting vulnerable groups of people, particularly women, who often faced social exclusion. Gillian has worked in both direct service delivery as a case manager, as well as in the role of an operational manager, overseeing project management of services, in-house training, and staff performance and professional development.