Social challenges in PNG

I am Serena Sasingian, Executive Director of The Voice Inc. a youth development organisation based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. We work with young people in educational institutions to build youth leadership for social change.

For thousands of years my people lived in harmony with the environment and each other. There were strong social structures that held the community together. A river, a mountain, dense forests or plains of grassland isolated tribes. This mean that unique communities evolved, each with their own rich customs, traditions and languages. It is from this background that our first generation of nation builders emerged. These were people, like Bart Philemon and Rabbie Namaliu, had to walk for hours to get an education, had to deal with the imposition of a foreign language and embrace values that were different to those of their cultural background.

I can only imagine the challenges that generation went through. A new generation is emerging, the generation of their children (like myself) who have grown up with less confusion, better quality education and technology, like the internet and social media. Sadly this experience accounts for less than 15 percent of our total population. The rest continue to rely on subsistence farming for their livelihood. For them, life has not changed greatly since independence, but we are seeing an erosion of customary social structures and the systems that supported communities for thousands of years.

37 years after independence PNG is still developing as a nation. You will notice I say “developing as a nation” and not “developing nation” to avoid the negative connotations associated with this. I consider growth and development of a nation to be like a child that is eventually fits the clothes they are wearing. We were given democracy, you and I know that democracies work on the premise that there is an educated, engaged and informed population able to elect parliamentarians capable of producing laws and policies that serve the interest of the people. In PNG we have a long way to go before we see that happen. Much of the population are uneducated and they vote according to “big man culture”.

Social indicators show that the incidence of poverty in PNG is increasing and that in recent decades educational outcomes have been falling. Our HDI value for 2011 was 0.466 — in the low human development category — positioning us at 153 out of 187 countries and territories. Between 1980 and 2011, our HDI value increased from 0.313 to 0.466, an increase of 49.0 per cent or an average annual increase of about 1.3 per cent. This still places us at the bottom 20 percent of countries worldwide, and is a major development challenge for our future as the development of our people is key to seeing progress achieved.

Youth are a critical component when we talk about development because PNG has a very young population: 40 percent are under the age of 15. Unfortunately they are entering adulthood amid a range of health and social issues. As Professor Ross Hynes of the University of PNG has pointed out, the socio-cultural setting in which young people operate displays multi-layered value systems including: traditional- customary; Christian; good governance; opportunistic-exploitative; sorcery; and warrior values. Good personal and community decision-making is often compromised by this complexity.

At The Voice Inc., we believe that while there are many structural issues underpinning and contributing to poverty, there are also many ways to address them and respond to them. Many young people do not have a vision for their lives. They live surrounded by violence, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, purposelessness and idleness. And yet, all people have a purpose in life. Not recognising that causes people to live far below their potential.

A significant factor in the creation and sustainability of positive communities is to give our young people a sense of purpose. We need to be enabling them to realise their potential and their responsibility to use their gifts, talents, passions and dreams to serve the world.

The two most important factors on the social development agenda to ensure a vibrant and dynamic population of active citizens are education and health.


For a country as diverse and complex as PNG, with hundreds of languages and cultures, schools are major can teach values to help shift culture and transform society. According to statistics from the PNG National Statistical Office, over one third of school aged youths have not received any form of formal education, and females are worse off than males. The Department of Education tells us that approximately 80,000 young people leave the school system each year. The formal labor force has been able to absorb less than 10,000. What then becomes of the rest of this vital resource?

With the introduction of the government’s free education policy to ensure that all people receive their basic human right to an education, one must raise the question: is it free education that we are looking for or better quality education that is needed? We have had successful models at the provincial level of government. The national government could learn a lot from Governor Ipatas, who over the last decade has introduced a free education policy. In the 2007 elections he risked losing favor with his voters for changing the policy from “free education” to “quality education” because he saw that the challenge still remained to build school infrastructure. He invested the funds that would have been used to subsidise school fees in building school infrastructure, introducing computer labs and encouraging students to wear school uniforms to restore school pride. This has resulted in Enga Province having some of the highest intake numbers into tertiary institutions in the country.

While that is a success story, the majority of our school infrastructure has deteriorated and tertiary institutions are under-funded and under-staffed. Where will our young men and women be in 20 years’ time? If we cannot produce the next generation of well-educated civil servants, politicians, economists and intellectuals, how can we not regress? Will we have changed, or will we still be locked in a cycle of disappointment and despair?

It is not only access to education that must be given consideration but important components of the curriculum and pedagogy. Individuals can both acquire and employ skills, which will reproduce society, or they can accumulate the skills needed to transform society. We can no longer reproduce the values and structures that have positioned our people on the lowest rankings of governance and other human development indicators.


While there a number of issues to discuss which are pertinent to health, one that is very close to my heart is maternal mortality. How can the beauty of giving birth to life be mired in the reality of so many women dying in the process? PNG’s maternal mortality rates are some of the lowest in the region. According to a health demographic survey, there has been a more than two-fold increase in PNG’s mortality rate from 370 to more than 730 per 100,000 in the past 10 years. Poor maintenance of health facilities has affected the ability to attract and maintain staff and provide high-quality and safe care.


Going forward, our failure to generate any meaningful or sustainable long-term growth may be attributed to a number of factors: geographical, historical, cultural, tribal and institutional.

A well-functioning civil society and politically involved citizenry are the backbone of sustainable development. The government must foster an environment that will allow for an increase in private sector investment and create incentives for entrepreneurs. With a healthy, engaged and active middle class there will be a stronger ability to hold government to account for the inadequacies we are currently experiencing.

Without active and engaged citizens issues of corruption begin to erode service delivery and impede progress in lifting the standard of living for all Papua New Guineans.

At The Voice Inc., we believe young people are leaders in creating the future today. Young people lead by example, they lead by their gifts, talents and skills, we must give them every opportunity they need to lead today.

Serena Sasingian is the Executive Director of The Voice, a youth development organisation based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

This is an edited version of a presentation Ms Sasingian delivered at Devpolicy’s 2012 Pacific Update at the ANU on September 6, 2012 (video available here). The rest of the series can be found here.

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Serena Sumanop

Serena Sumanop is Executive Director of The Voice Inc and a member of the Management Committee of the PNG Family and Sexual Violence Case Management Centre.


  • The Voice Inc is a great platform to advocate for youth empowerment and make them as valuable partners in the development of our country. It is great to see it evolve as a student group back at UPNG and has now developed into an institution that can create and influence policy changes for our developing nation.
    Thumps up to the leadership of Voice Inc, you guys have shown the right leadership skills in nurturing it from its initial stage to what it is mow to be reckon with in Australia and the Pacific policy arena.
    Its a great networking avenue and platform to collaborate and raise policy issues that affects us all. I think some more of such platforms to be created to give policy voice to the voiceless.

  • The outlook for societal trends in Papua New Guinea is bumpy at best. The combined headwinds of a youth bulge approaching its peak, few formal sector employment opportunities and weak service delivery will be difficult to overcome. The government will need to redouble its efforts to implement existing policies and develop new ones that will ensure growing opportunities for Papua New Guineans.

  • Only if men and women, leaders of Papua New Guinea work together truthfully and honestly according to thier vows then the country will be governed well. And CORRUPTION should be stopped in Papua New Guinea.

  • Papua New Guinea needs a good leaders to manage the wealth of this nation or else Papua New Guinea will be exploit for the economic growth and development of another foreigners just as the colonial period, enough is enough we cannot continuously exploited for the economically desire of another country. Thank you.

  • this is the clear evaluation of challenges being faced by most Papua New Guineans since the birth of this young nation to visualized who our fore father as a hunters and gatherers to our father and now, this is the error of change, lets hope that the slogan Take back PNG will eventuate in 2022

  • As a patriot, the setbacks in the development of the nation, are not down to the nation itself but to the very individuals who belong and make up this nation. As an advocate of The Voice Inc., I, personally commend the magnificent job that is of substantial value. In order to achieve the 2050 version, and to take back PNG, as proud dwellers with innate abilities to change the course of the progress, we need to develop the individuals’ character. If we as individuals change and see things from different angles, with different perspectives to prosper in individual life, and bring vast impacts on others, our ambition to take back PNG will be a success. Unless we as individuals change and impact our peers, we won’t make it through.

  • With the world advancing into digital era with the use of technology its better to have people like you who are innovative in serving in this area to better inform our younger generations to be wise in their decision for better Papua New Guineans to takeover from current leaders in the future. Leaders are not born but are nurtured and groomed, so thank you very much. I hope your dreams and visions for our youth are achieved.

  • I am indeed so humble to salute the initiative undertaken to change and influence the youth through leadership training.There is a saying going”To liberate the nation you liberate the person”.

  • Youths are the future of our nation. This presentation clearly outline the lack of basic need towards the development of the youths potential. True education and health are the key factor to the social development of the youth. one cannot understand how to develop his or her potential without being educated and cannot be fit to carry out the potential if not in good health.

  • Serena good presentation on social development. The areas you touched on — education and health — are vast areas that will take enormous amount of resources and time before we achieve our dreams.

    Basic education and health care is the core responsibility of government, let’s not worry about it, rather focus on what we can do and be capable of so that it contributes to the bigger picture. For example, your organisation’s focus on youth leadership for social changes is one element of the contribution to the bigger picture that we would like to see.

  • I believe in changing PNG but how can we change PNG?
    Well, the change must start from you and me as an individual, then eventually it goes up the steps.

  • We need to reform our LAWS. Our laws are precolonial and inherited from the Colonists after independence. A lot of our laws are geared towards the benefit of the colonists. We need to reform our laws to benefit Papua New Guineans on the social front, political front and the economical front. Most of our laws are outdated. when lawyers interpret these laws, they bring us back to the way things were done before independence during the colonial era and make their verdicts. We are all governed by these outdated precolonial laws and they do not reflect the constitution of our country. These outdated laws do not reflect todays situations nor the future trends in our developing nation. Our people will continue to suffer while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We have a Law Reform Committee but what has transpired out of this committee. The reform of laws to be geared towards the benefit of all Papua New Guineans as captured in our constitution is a mammoth task and very cumbersome. The processes that it has the run these reforms through is immense and takes years to accomplish. from the formative stage of the Law Reform Committee to this date, I personally have not heard much from this party.

    • Make an example of an outdated statute or specify a particular law that deems obsolete today. Remember changing, altering amending laws are not like opening windows with an hope to see what you want to see. We have to go through changes that will prompt law changes. Law changes can not change you.

  • Thank you to the voice inc for the job well done to keep younger generation on the right trek for the betterment of our country PNG. As we all know social problems is becoming a norm in this country and one way or the other we as the responsible citizen of this country must work together side by side to do away with it andit all starts within the family. it is without a doubt that family is the cornerstone of human existence and thus hold the key to the realization of peaceful and harmonious world, it also have the power to influence and change the society

    thank you
    and happy 40th independence celebration

  • Social issues are a time bomb to PNG. As an individual, families, communities we need to play our part to stop this explosion. Our economy is booming in regards to the natural resources as this will bring much more issues that will directly affect our youths and bring this country into chaos.

    To fight social issues, every stake holders of this country has to work even harder to achieve a low level or nil social issues. Our Government has to take the upper hand to combat this mighty battle for the well being of this beautiful nation.

    I really appreciate the work of The Voice and other organization who are spear heading to fight this ugly battle.

    Thank you !!..

  • Social structures in our society are breaking down faster than we think because of ignorance by generational behaviour thing. Free education is abused by implementors and legitimate processes are undermined by nepotism. Corruption disorients good governance. In the last 20 years the has been a mixed bag of leaps and bounds really because we tried too hard, became too greedy, or our policies were simply inferior. More so just a fast lane thing. Never mind how we got here we burst on regardless

  • I personally dream that one day PNG will change from developing nation to developed nation. So what about you? To change from no where to somewhere we as an individual must change ourselves, because external changes is determined by internal changes. You can not change someone until you change yourself.

    Therefore, as an educated person reading this comment, please turn from your bad character and try to be good so that others will follow you..

    Thank you

    (Koni Poiye)

    • As God created this world, he also created our parents subsequently to guide us in this rough world; likewise he purposely chosen the leaders to lead us into a right destination which God has predestined for us. But from my own perspective, everything is malfunctioning due to the leaders political conspiracy which is not good in God’s sight. Such problems are just like rats coming out from within the nearest forest so leaders need to clear those unwanted weeds to prevent them from being conjured.
      Moreover, we as a educated person and unique individuals we have teach the next group of people who are following our footprints not to be like us but to be better than us. Do what you can do for Papua New Guinea and P.N.G. will change.

      Thank you

  • It’s a great thing you are doing out there.
    I believe, as an educated elites, we need to start at our homes, families, tribes, and up to the nation as a whole.
    The root of all issues are at home….we need to go back to save this beautiful nation.

  • Tthis is a clear evaluation of challenges being faced by most Papua New Guineans since the birth of this young nation . Remember that despite the the downfalls we have faced, i believe this is an assurance that we will achieve the core goals of this nation, like the vision 2050. Thus we shall all bloom to give a summed glory of PAPUA NEW GUINEA.

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