The National, Thursday July 25th, 2013
By BEN BLAND
IN A country where many children never make it to high school, Gabriel Farisa was fortunate that support from his family allowed him to stay in education until he was 16.
But having dropped out before getting his diploma because of financial pressures, he was unable to find work – like many other young inhabitants of the notorious “settlements” of Port Moresby, the crime-ridden capital of Papua New Guinea, the largest of the Pacific island nations.
These squatter areas are home to tens of thousands of people who have moved to the city in recent decades in the hope of tapping into the growing riches being funneled to the city from the many mining and oil and gas projects around the country.
PNG’s economy has grown rapidly over the past decade on the back of the country’s vast resources of gold, copper, oil and gas, and the burgeoning of a small, consuming middle class in the main cities and towns.
But inequality has also widened.
When it comes to key social indicators such as literacy and maternal death this nation of more than seven million people has gone backwards, performing little better than war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As the benefits of PNG’s mineral boom trickle down only very slowly, many in the settlements are without access to clean running water, electricity and worst of all, proper job opportunities.
Many families eke out a hand-to-mouth existence, forcing them to pull their children out of school to save on book costs and other educational fees – and making it hard for such unqualified youths to find work.
Fortunately for Farisa, after six years of doing odd jobs, he has secured his first formal employment with the help of a programme set up by the Ginigoada Bisnis Development Foundation, a local non-governmental organisation, and the Digicel PNG Foundation, the charitable arm of the country’s leading mobile phone network operator.
“It was difficult to find work before without a certificate and references,” Farisa says, while taking a break from his shift in the bakery at the gleaming, new Waterfront Foodworld supermarket by the city’s spectacular bay.
“The pay here is not great, but I want to learn and I like baking scones and bread.”
He is one of several young people from a settlement in Konedobu – one of many no-go areas marked on the maps handed out to expatriate oil and gas and development workers – who have been employed at the high-end supermarket with the help of Ginigoada and the Digicel Foundation.
Together, the two organisations set up a two-week life and business skills course aimed at improving the living standards of settlement dwellers by teaching them about everything from personal health and gender equality to basic financial awareness and interview skills.
Those who complete the course are eligible to apply for vocational training organised by Ginigoada in conjunction with the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The training helps participants connect with employers such as supermarkets and hotels, or supports them in developing small businesses in, for example, electronics repairs.
Beatrice Mahuru, chief executive of the Digicel Foundation in PNG, says the scheme began life as a one-week discussion programme launched in 2011 to tackle violence against women, which has reached horrific levels in a nation where many of the 800-plus tribes view men as masters of their household.
“People told us many other organisations come to talk to them about gender-based violence and they wanted something that would help them find work,” Mahuru says.
“Many people from the settlements get sucked into crime because they don’t have jobs and there is no other way to put bread on the table, especially for those without a good education.”
At first, the courses, which are held on a rotational basis in different settlement areas, attracted only a few dozen participants.
But this quickly grew to more than 150 in many cases.
The skills that are taught, from personal hygiene to household budgeting, are very basic but help the students to gain badly needed confidence.
Last year, nearly 3,000 people signed up for the life and business skills programme, which was run in 17 settlements and three villages, and 2,269 completed the course, which requires them to attend every day.
More than 1,400 people have graduated this year from the course, which Ginigoada is now running on its own, having secured independent funding.
Last year, 333 of the business and life skills graduates attended the more skills training and 56 of those obtained permanent jobs.
This year, 92 has attended further skills training and 19 have obtained permanent jobs.
Not all the graduates are young and without work.
The courses have attracted a wide range of people in search of a way to get their lives back on track, including Amos Cook.
With his baseball cap, low-slung jeans and “Badboys”-branded shirt, his gangster-chic style could place him in almost any capital city in the world.
But when he opens his mouth, he reveals a set of teeth stained deep red, a side-effect common in PNG among those who chew betel nut, a mild stimulant.
The 29-year-old’s chiseled features tell the story of a hard life, from running with a gang of armed robbers to serving a ¬five-year prison sentence and from alcohol addiction to fights with his wife.
Speaking just before the graduation ceremony in a dilapidated theatre at the Murray Barracks, the headquarters of the PNG Defence Force, Cook explains that since giving up crime after being released from jail four years ago, his problem has been not money but drink.
When rubber prices are good, he can earn as much as K300 a day from his family’s 10ha of rubber trees near the town of Kupiano, 130km southeast of Port Moresby.
But on some days he spends more than half of that on beer, which costs K7 a can in Kupiano, once it has been transported down a road that is in poor condition, like many across this geographically diverse and poorly connected nation.
“I’m drinking myself to death,” he says. “I know I need to change and I hope the budgeting and other skills I’ve learned will help me.”
The long graduation ceremony is interspersed with Christian prayers and an energetic sermon by Mike Field, an evangelical pastor who is Ginigoada’s manager, underlining the deep role religion and the churches continue to play in PNG.
Relatives crowd at the back of the theatre and on the balcony to support the course participants.
Mahuru says this shows how much this means to people who may never have received a formal certificate before.
“NGO initiatives like this are no substitute for the role of a government that for too long has turned a blind eye to the need to promote health and education.
“But having learned what works in the capital city, the Digicel Foundation is seeking to scale up its efforts by funding the rollout of a similar programme in the agricultural town of Mount Hagen, in the fertile but under-developed Highlands. Despite rapid urbanisation, 85% of the country’s population still lives in rural areas.
“Rather than preparing participants for formal employment, this course will be designed to helpfarmers and small market traders develop their business acumen to improve productivity and incomes.
But, in a sign of the depth of the challenges in PNG, the Digicel Foundation will not launch the programme until the end of local elections in July because, Mahuru says, this period can be volatile and “we don’t want the facilitators or the local community to get hurt.”
The life and business skills course has helped people like Farisa to take their first step on the formal employment ladder.
“People are disenfranchised, disillusioned and feel forgotten,” says Field. “If we can encourage them to feel cared for and connected and give them a pathway, it’s amazing to see what they can do.”
But there are no easy solutions to Port Moresby’s social problems, particularly as its population swells to nearly one million, according to some estimates.
Hudili Magau’s predicament demonstrates that.
She first studied bookkeeping on a short course back in 2000.
But, without a school graduation certificate, she could not find a job, so she worked as a shop assistant before the needs of her family forced her to give up – in her settlement, she had to fetch water by the bucket every day, which she could not do while working a long shift and looking after her three young children.
Now, the 31-year-old has moved to a better settlement with running water and in April she completed the business and life skills course in an attempt to find formal work after years subsisting by selling betel nuts and fruit on the street.
Magau is two weeks into an eight-week paid work experience stint in the administration department of the Gateway hotel, part of a local chain owned by the Swire group, the London-based conglomerate that also owns Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airline.
It is the first time she has worked in an office or on a computer and she says she is enjoying the experience so far.
But after failing so many times to get a formal job in the past, she is cautious about her future.
“I want to improve my skills and get a better job to support my family,” she says.
“But the problem is that I need more time and money to do so.”