Q & A with Genevieve Nelson

  • Date:01 Oct 2013
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
Dr Genevieve Nelson talks to Zilla Efrat about how a life-changing experience altered her career path and nurtured her mission to help the descendants of Papua New Guinea’s “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”.

As a child, Dr Genevieve Nelson wanted to be a flautist, a chef and a doctor when she grew up – in that order. Instead, she became a psychologist.

Today she is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Western Sydney and the executive director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, an Australian philanthropic organisation that aims to repay the selfless help given to Australia during World War II by the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” of Papua New Guinea (PNG) by helping to improve the lives and futures of their descendants.

She has walked the Kokoda Track an awe-inspiring 19 times and spends at least two months of every year in PNG’s remote communities implementing and monitoring aid programs. She was also a finalist in the 2013 Young Australian of the Year Awards and the 2012 Telstra Business Women’s Awards. And, she won the 2012 Silver Stevie Award for Young Female Entrepreneur of the Year.

Here, she talks to Company Director about why her career has taken the path it has, what keeps her on track and a huge new personal journey yet to come.

Company Director (CD): What encouraged you to study psychology?

Genevieve Nelson (GN): By the end of my HSC, I had my heart set on studying medicine. I had ruled out being a flautist or chef by that stage, mainly due to lack of talent. However, after missing getting into medicine by a single Universities Admission Index point, I decided psychology would be the next best thing. My motivation for studying medicine was my very early interest in developing countries and a desire to embark on studies and a career that would be useful in these countries.

I decided to do psychology as a “back up” and then apply for post-graduate studies in medicine with this dream still in mind. What I didn’t realise was that psychology would take me down this very same path. 

CD: How did you develop your interest in education in developing countries?

GN:
I had an interest in developing countries from a very young age. I am not sure why. My parents weren’t particularly interested, but my younger brother and I had early passions for poverty alleviation and similar issues. I ended up in PNG while he went to Africa.

During my third year of psychology studies, I decided to find a supervisor who would let me do my honours thesis in PNG. I didn’t care what topic it was on, just that it was in PNG.

I had visited PNG in my first year of university, walked the Kokoda Track and had a life-changing experience. I knew I wanted to direct a part of my life to our nearest neighbour. Eventually I found a supervisor who was crazy or brave enough to take me on and completed my honours research in PNG. This was quickly followed by a doctorate in PNG. I examined the PNG education system from a psychological perspective, looking at what makes children learn, types of motivation, the role of the family and the context of poverty. 

As a result of the time I spent living in PNG, the relationships I had built in communities and the broad knowledge I had developed, I realised this was where I could be of most use. It was during this period that the Kokoda Track Foundation was born and I joined a small group of co-founders who wanted to do something to lend a hand to our nearest neighbour. My role with the foundation was to develop and oversee our aid and development programs in PNG, starting in the important area of education.

PNG is Australia’s nearest neighbour and yet of all nearest neighbours in the world, PNG and Australia have the greatest disparity of poverty and wealth. Knowing we are a stone’s throw away and having spent so much time with the most generous and wonderful people, you can’t help but develop an enormous desire to see that gap closed and to lend a hand.

CD: You’ve walked Kokoda 19 times. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences?

GN: My first crossing was the absolute hardest. It was gruelling. It was before the trekking industry had really taken off and I was one of only 50 people who went across that year (numbers then peaked in 2008 at 6,000 trekkers. These days, numbers are a more steady 3,500 a year). We crossed Kokoda in the wet season, had three evacuations along the way and were so far behind schedule we had to complete 25 per cent of the track on the final day. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, but it was also life-changing.

I walked Kokoda again as a tourist and then a few times while I was visiting and living in the villages conducting my honours and Ph.D research. These days it comes with the job description. We take a very hands-on and active role in our aid and development work in PNG. We are the implementing body of all our education, health, community development and microbusiness programs as well as the administration and fundraising body in Australia.

I walk Kokoda a couple of times a year now. I conduct an annual audit of all of our programs every February, which involves visiting 40 villages in a single month to check on how everything is going.

It is also so important to experience Kokoda as the locals experience it every day. We do not want to be like government agencies or large corporations flying in and flying out and wasting enormous budgets on helicopters. We walk Kokoda often. We build and foster relationships with local people in the communities and we get a real understanding of what the major issues and needs are in communities. It keeps us grounded and connected.

The hardest part about walking Kokoda is the mental challenge. The physical hardship is, of course, pretty gruelling. But it’s the mental barriers we put up for ourselves that are the hardest to overcome.

CD: What have your treks taught you in life?

GN: Kokoda is very much about overcoming adversity and gaining a new perspective on one’s life. Having walked something as gruelling as Kokoda can give a person a benchmark in overcoming adversity they can look back on when faced with challenges in the future. It has certainly played that role in my life. It has also given me broadened and renewed perspectives. It gives you balance, appreciation for everything in life and a clear understanding of just how good we have it here in Australia.

CD: What are the major challenges for the Kokoda Track Foundation board at present?

GN:
Funding is an ongoing challenge for a small not-for-profit (NFP) organisation like the Kokoda Track Foundation, especially in the current economic climate. Securing multi-year, strategic and sustainable funding partnerships is every NGO’s aim. Other challenges include the media’s heightened interest in negative news stories about PNG, the volatile social and political landscape in PNG and the immensity of the issues we are dealing with in our aid and development activities in PNG.   

CD: What is your reading of the recent attack on the Black Cat trail in which two porters were killed and tourists from Australia and New Zealand injured?

GN: These events were an absolute tragedy. It’s too early to comment on why the attack occurred and we will need to wait for the investigations of local police. Prime Minister O’Neill has condemned the attack and has called for a thorough investigation, so I am hopeful some light will be shed. It is very unlikely, however, that the trekkers from Australia and New Zealand were targeted, other than for a potential robbery.

It is important to put attacks like these in perspective. Yes, there are security issues facing Papua New Guineans which can be very complex. However, in my 13 years of travelling, living and working in PNG, I have never come across anything like this.

Violent attacks happen throughout the world – Australia included – and as the PNG High Commissioner said in the media recently, PNG doesn’t issue a travel warning against Australia every time someone is attacked on our streets. My experience with PNG people is they are gentle, warm, compassionate and extremely generous and we hope this is a message that can get just as much media attention as the bad-news stories.

Finally, the trekking company that operates on the Black Cat Trail and that led the group that was attacked is well known to me and is extremely professional. Pam Christie and Mark Hitchcock have lived in PNG for over 23 years and the young trek leader Christy King has lived in Lae for 11 years and is extremely well known and respected by local communities. The trek leader should be praised for her bravery during the attack and for leading the trekkers to safety after the frightening experience. The two porters who lost their lives should also be remembered and commemorated for worrying about the trekkers’ safety and sacrificing themselves in an act of bravery. 

CD: Will this attack affect visits to the Kokoda Track and your foundation’s efforts and activities?

GN: Unfortunately, the attack and the exposure it has received in the Australian press probably means some people will reconsider their plans to travel to PNG and walk the Kokoda Track. Kokoda is more than 200 kilometres away from the Black Cat Trail and has a well-developed tourism and trekking industry. Local communities are passionate about the trekking industry and understand it is a vital source of income and improved livelihoods. Local Kokoda communities who have heard about the Black Cat incident are extremely concerned it may jeopardise tourism in their area and the local track managing authority has issued a statement confirming the security and safety of trekkers in the Kokoda Track villages.

Our work will continue as normal. We exist to support communities who have basic education and health needs and to help them to benefit from the trekking industry. We strongly reject some statements made by Australian operators that the attack was “inevitable”. That statement is insulting to the local communities who I have known and loved for so many years and who would never contemplate hurting another human being, let alone a visitor to their land.

CD: What advice would you give to Australians considering visiting PNG or walking its hiking trails  and who are concerned about security issues?

GN: My advice is to always go with a professional and licensed tour operator. The Kokoda Track Authority has a list of all licensed Kokoda trek operators on its website. Check Australian government warnings about avoiding certain parts of the country. Always travel in groups. Develop bonds and relationships with your local porters and do not travel in the cities unaccompanied.

CD: How are you finding the funding/donor landscape in Australia at present and why?

GN: It can be tough, but we have a solid community of committed funders and donors whom we rely on to partner us and fund our programs in PNG. We do not receive any funding from the PNG or Australian governments.
We often find people and companies funding our work have some sort of connection to PNG. They have walked the Kokoda Track, or have lived and worked in PNG, or had family there during the war. We have a lot of corporate partners that have a presence in PNG and want to contribute to breaking the poverty cycle.
Funding challenges, however, include getting people to see beyond our shores and to want to contribute to our Pacific neighbours and develop partnerships that involve contributing cash to our organisation as well as donating in-kind resources and services – all of which are extremely valuable.

CD: What innovative things are you doing to “do more on less” as an organisation?

GN: We have always strived to be as efficient and effective as we possibly can. I think this is ingrained into all small, start-up charities. We do this by minimising our administrative expenses, relying on volunteers and pro bono support everywhere we can, being active and hands on in PNG to prevent ineffective spending, being in complete control of our aid and development projects, and finding creative ways to fund and implement our programs.

CD: What were your challenges as a young female director in Australia?

GN: There were certainly unique challenges I faced as a young, female director, including overcoming the stereotypes often associated with being young and a woman. A lot of it came down to my own inner demons: How will I contribute? Am I only here because I’m a female? Do they think I have no place on this board?

Overcoming this was a matter of time, hard work and patience and being able to demonstrate where my contribution would be. This involved taking risks. It also involved actively contributing to all functions of the board – not just the aid and development programs where my knowledge and passions were, but also governance, transparency, financial management, fundraising, marketing, government relations and public relations. 

CD: What advice would you give other young people who are about to join a board?

GN:
Don’t let your age make you think you can’t contribute to a board. And, for young women, the same goes for your gender. I was 21 when I joined the board of the foundation.

Young people bring completely different perspectives to the boardroom and I believe should be sought out by all boards. They bring youthful, fresh, optimistic outlooks, they are very positive and enthusiastic and they have the ability to build new relationships and partnerships that are likely to last for a very long time.

I was the only female sitting on the board for a few years and again, I believe women should be sought out for more board positions. Women can also bring completely different perspectives and contributions to boards. Women tend to provide a more compassionate and empathic outlook. They are also exceptional at building relationships – from the grassroots to the boardroom. And, we know how important engaging and actively involving women are in the international development field.

CD: What are the biggest mistakes Australian companies make when investing or doing business in PNG and how can they avoid these?

GN:
A common mistake is not building relationships at the grassroots level. Just about all investment and business in PNG will affect the grassroots in some way. This takes time and it requires the building of trust and respect. It also involves entering into partnerships with local communities – not thrusting business ideas on them – and empowering communities to be actively involved and help influence the direction of business investments.

CD: What opportunities are Australian companies missing in PNG today?

GN: Tourism! There are so many missed opportunities for tourism in PNG. Yes, PNG has a unique set of challenges to overcome before we see the same number of holiday-makers flocking to or transiting through Port Moresby as we see in Kuta in Bali or Nadi in Fiji.

However, PNG has so much potential. It has some of the most spectacular diving I have ever done in the world. The trekking is amazing. The terrain is gruelling, but fascinating and its environmental and cultural diversity and the warmth and generosity of its people are absolutely breathtaking. I hope many more people make the journey to PNG to share in a land and a culture that has become such an important part of my life. I believe PNG and Australian companies alike should invest in this area.

CD: Are you planning to join further boards in the next few years and if so, what types of boards?

GN: Yes, I would love to. I would love to sit on another board that works in the international development space, but perhaps has a stronger focus on advocacy. While grassroots change is essential for poverty alleviation and while the creation of opportunities for improving education and health services is crucial, this can often only occur in parallel with large advocacy and awareness movements.

CD: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

GN: Hopefully doing something along these same lines. I am so passionate about seeing change in PNG. We are about to embark on our biggest initiative ever: the creation and construction of the Kokoda College. Out of this new facility we will be training urgently needed teachers and community health workers for PNG.

Projects like this have the ability to be replicated across the country and if implemented in partnership with a government committed to free education and access to primary healthcare, have the ability to transform the current state of education and health in PNG.

I hope to continue along this path of seeking innovative solutions to help communities lift themselves out of poverty for many decades to come.

I am also about to embark on my biggest personal journey yet. My partner and I are expecting our first baby in January next year. I know this is going to throw a whole lot of “spanners” at carefully laid plans for career development, board directorships and other professional opportunities, but I believe wholeheartedly in building and being in control of one’s own future and being able to “do it all”. 

The whole experience to date of being pregnant has already given me a completely different outlook on many things related to my work. We have accessible, high-quality child and maternal health services in Australia and bringing these services to the developing world has to be one of the greatest and most pressing challenges of our time.

I hope in 10 years’ time things will be very different for women and children living in communities in PNG’s Central and Oro provinces and that they too will be able to access the health services that are a fundamental human right and that we so often take for granted. I hope to make a small contribution towards this.