Stanford Holds Conference on Development in Papua New Guinea

Nick Benavides ’08, co-founder of Panango, a Stanford-based NGO that sends Stanford undergraduates to teach English in primary schools on Karkar Island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, holds that Americans have more to learn from this country than one would imagine. The three-day Stanford-Papua New Guinea Conference on Development taking place from February 26 to 28 at Encina Hall marks an opportunity to ignite an ongoing collaborative effort between Stanford University and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

U.N. Ambassador Robert Aisi provided opening remarks on Friday, March 26 and will also participate in the Civil Society and the Rule of Law panel on Saturday, March 27. Referring to the progress that PNG has made since its independence from Australia in 1975, Aisi stated, “We have to accept that development doesn’t happen in thirty years, or even fifty years. If you look at basic aspects of development in terms of factors such as health, education, and human rights, these things don’t just happen overnight. I think PNG’s challenge is to focus on evolution as a process.”

The conference will feature a total of four panel events in developmental education, environment, health, and civil society. Stanford volunteer student organizations, such as Future Social Innovators Network, Initiative Against Malaria, and Society for International Affairs at Stanford, will be attending the event. Workshops and informal networking sessions will also be held for Stanford students, faculty, and the Bay Area community to engage with PNG students and faculty. Hon. James Marape, PNG Minister of Education, and Ambassador Evan Paki and will also provide opening and closing remarks.

James Laki, Director of Peace in Melanasia, participated in the Civil Society panel with Aisi. Laki hopes those who attend the conference will gain insight into “the diverse nature of PNG that has become perhaps an impediment for social capital investment.” He looks forward to gaining “perspective on what outsiders or international partners and helpers think of PNG” and also to establishing “a network with like minded people.”

Teng Waninga, head of the Department of Curriculum & Development at Goroka University in PNG since 2006, spoke at the Sunday panel on development and education. Goroka University is PNG’s only teaching training institution, offering both two-and four-year programs for teachers of primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels. Waninga expressed his desire to create a globally competitive teaching culture in PNG, which he admits is much constrained by governmental policy and control.

According to Waninga, this conference holds the key to transforming an educational system that faces numerous problems. Waninga stated that he strives to change the PNG standard of a passive education in which “students come to class to sit and listen for hours.” He plans to gather feedback from University faculty on how to construct a curriculum that encourages students to raise questions.

How exactly will this conference provide the answers that PNG seeks? With over six million people and 850 distinct indigenous languages, PNG faces the major barrier of keeping its main language of instruction consistent throughout the country. This problem is compounded by an agriculturally dominant society, one of the fastest growing AIDS epidemics in the word, and an unemployment rate that hovers at around 80 percent. PNG’s abundant natural resources are at great risk to exploitation by foreign companies.

The sentiment of Papua New Guineans, according to Waninga, is that Australians have forced many incorrect ideas onto PNG’s educational system. He stated: “We want to learn from developed countries such as America, England, and Canada how to change the mindset of teachers so that a more relevant educational curriculum can extend its roots throughout the country.”

He looks to Stanford University for answers but emphasized that PNG had a lot to offer Stanford University as well. “Education is not a right, but a privilege, that not many can afford. I want conference attendants to recognize our cultural richness.”

Christa Morris ‘10, co-founder of Panango, expressed her belief that PNG serves an “ideal case study” in which students can “apply the abstract ideas they learn in class to a country at its tipping point.” According to Morris, PNG’s unique traditions, such as wantok – literally literally translated to a “one-talk” system that connotes strong community support – are at the verge of becoming destroyed and exploited by foreign and domestic interests.
Morris first participated in Panango during her freshman year and has been “obsessed with the country ever since.” Although she initially traveled to PNG in search of complete remoteness, she reaffirmed her belief in the importance of development within the country.

How to promote such development without spoiling the culture of PNG remains a great challenge for the country within upcoming years. While the education, health, civil society, and environment panels will present PNG with a variety of resources throughout this three-day affair, Morris stated that it would be difficult to foster continual dialogue with PNG.

Benavides, on the other hand, claimed that the biggest challenge the coalition faces is a matter of Americans’ life priorities. He questioned emphatically: “Is what we really need a Rolls Royce or a walk in the woods?”
Morris’ ultimate goal is to get people “involved not necessarily as volunteers, but interested in the country of PNG.” Similarly, Ambassador Aisi hoped the conference would encourage students to pursue research opportunities in PNG.

Rick Ramirez ’11, also a Panango volunteer in 2008, taught English to fifth and sixth graders in PNG and believes that the experience made him realize “these people were real people. The problems they are coping with are not too unlike the problems we deal with ourselves.”

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