Almost two years ago, the Church set into action a strategic plan on the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea to promote self reliance among a Latter-day Saint population that suffers from high unemployment and more than 90 percent illiteracy.
Months later, local and area leaders are seeing the results of those efforts, which focus on education, employment and agriculture.
"This country is faced with very real challenges," said Elder John M. Madsen of the Seventy and first counselor in the Australia/New Zealand Area Presidency. "There is pervasive poverty and overwhelming economic challenges."
To meet these challenges, the Australia/New Zealand Area presidency, with cooperation and direction from the Presiding Bishopric, created a plan which was approved by the First Presidency in January 2000 to help Church members in the country become more self-reliant.
This plan was implemented in March 2001, when humanitarian missionaries Punga and Josephine Paewai of New Zealand arrived in the country to oversee the program.
In Papua New Guinea — where the Church has one stake, one mission, and nine member districts — the Paewais observed many social and humanitarian needs. They found communities in need of potable water and sanitation systems. They found schools in need of textbooks, desks and basic equipment. They found hospitals in need of medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies.
So they went to work.
They taught members how to construct small garden plots. They helped children enroll in elementary and high school; they helped arrange for 10 young people to attend Liahona High School in Tonga, and a few returned missionaries to attend BYU-Hawaii. They found technical training for other members and helped them get and keep jobs.
"Still," said Elder Paewai, "they had barely scratched the surface." They continued helping in any way they could.
Members couldn't afford to send their children to school. Elementary school in the country cost about 50 kina ($10 U.S. ) a year; high school is 600 kina ($120 U.S.) a year. Elder Paewai explained that securing funding doesn't automatically ensure a child can attend one of the limited number of schools in the country. "Unless they pay very early, they may not get a place in school anyway," he said.
Employment is also a tremendous challenge in the larger cities due to the lack of available jobs, unless one has the required skills. Another critical concern is the availability of potable water. Every day, villagers walk long distances just to fetch their daily water supply. "The need for water is so critical," said Elder Paewai.
Through the Church-approved Papua New Guinea Self Reliance Project and Humanitarian funds, 18 potable water systems have been installed in villages, and some 45 schools — including elementary, secondary and universities — have been provided with computers, desks, textbooks, paper, pencils, blackboards and chalk. Two additional schools are being assisted with repairs, equipment and supplies.
Also medical supplies and equipment have been provided to local hospitals, and a mobile health unit has been set up and equipped to go into villages for use by local doctors who are donating a few days each month, providing free health care.
Elder and Sister Paewai have been able to help children through a variety of humanitarian projects, providing medical care, clothing and toys, and are assisting many others to find the help they need. "I will never, ever be the same because of what we have seen," said Elder Paewai.
Lady Carol Kidu, a member of the Parliament for Papua New Guinea and the Minister for Social Welfare and Development, has been extremely helpful in facilitating government approvals for many of these humanitarian projects and has been in attendance at the inauguration for some of them, said Elder Madsen.
Elder John Gibson, an Area Authority Seventy and a former mission president in Papua New Guinea, praised the Church's efforts in Papua New Guinea as being of tremendous benefit to the members there. He is pleased that 13 Papua New Guinean Latter-day Saints are now attending BYU-Hawaii. "The strategic plan is in the early stages but it is very promising," he said.
Jonathan Omae, a former district president in Papua New Guinea, is attending BYU-Hawaii. Raised in the Church, he is majoring in business management and political science and plans to return to his country to help the Church and his people. "Right now," he said, "we are an economy in crisis. It is pretty bad right now. It is difficult for people to find employment. . . . People do whatever they can to make money."
There are real needs in the country, he said. "I am so thankful the Lord is mindful of us, in the way of providing aid to Papua New Guinea to help the saints."
Elder Madsen called the history of the Church in Papua New Guinea "remarkable and dramatic."
The first branch was created in the country in October 1979. In May 1981, the Church gained legal status and in April 1983, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated Papua New Guinea for the preaching of the gospel. On Feb. 13, 1992, the Papua New Guinea Port Moresby Mission was organized and on Oct. 21, 1995, the Papua New Guinea Port Moresby Stake was created. Church membership in the country has increased from 4,723 in 1995 to almost 12,000 at the beginning of 2003, with a full-time missionary force of 77, the vast majority of whom are Papua New Guineans.
The Area Presidency are encouraged by the effects of these self-reliance and humanitarian projects, "which have brought immediate benefit to members of the Church and blessed many communities with a hope for a brighter future."