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Summary of PNG Developing the National Information Infrastructure
from Waigani Seminar 1997

By:  D E K Wijasuriya


Considering current constraints faced by organisations or bodies that could be used to initiate and implement necessary actions in response to concerns expressed at the 1997 Waigani Seminar, it is recommended that a National Task Force (NTF), reflective of a broad cross section of interests and expertise, is set in place with an on-going brief to focus on critical areas and issues, initiate necessary actions towards the overall improvement of the national information infrastructure(NII) and monitor as well as review progress.

PNG's greatest potential lies in the development of its human resources. PNG is most fortunate to have a number of higher education institutions, relative to the country's population, which are centers of excellence. These centers of excellence are the building blocks and major communication nodes within the national information network. The development of an eventual communications network of these centers together with key nodes within the government at both the NCD and provincial level, not only for more effective resource sharing at the national level, but more importantly to access global information resources for national development purposes is an objective that merits serious consideration and investment.

The Report by Dr. Hwa Wei Lee in 1991 on Library Development, Resource Sharing and Networking among Higher Education Institutions in Papua New Guinea did in fact envisage resource enhancement and networking to serve national development needs. This Report needs to be brought into focus, reviewed in the light of current developments and an action plan set in place with realistic targets and goals and appropriate funding as well as personnel support.

Higher education institutions as well as the system of schools in PNG however only provide education, knowledge and information access for a relatively small segment of the population of the country. For the vast majority of the people, information access and availability that could potentially be channelled through a nation-wide network of public library service outlets is severely limited.

Public library services serving both the urban and rural areas can contribute significantly to national development, provided they are placed on a firm foundation and given the necessary support by the Government in terms of funding, personnel, resources and facilities.

A Library Development Plan for Papua New Guinea, prepared in 1991 by Dr. D.E.K. Wijasuriya on behalf of the Library Council drew attention to the overall poverty of. provision within the public library sector and recommended a number of measures for the progressive improvement of provisions and services. While some features of the plan have been overtaken by events , there is a need for the plan to be brought into focus again and reviewed in order to put in place a more effective infrastructure for public library services within the country.

The Lee Report suggested the creation of a position of Library Services Coordinator within the Secretariat of the Commission for Higher Education to plan and coordinate the development of library and information resources in Higher Education institutions in PNG. This is a particularly critical appointment and needs to be given serious consideration.

The Library Development Plan for Papua New Guinea also suggested the creation of a key position at a senior level within the National Library Service for the overall planning and development of the public library sector with adequate support in terms of personnel and resources. This too cannot be stressed strongly enough.

Information is a critical resource for national development and unless key personnel are put in place and supported with the necessary resources, little meaningful development can be hoped for.

The development scenario for the library and information sector as envisaged in the early nineties has been changing very rapidly. No longer can the whole spectrum of development even within the limited confines of this sector be relegated entirely to a single institution despite its legislative underpinning. Reference is made here in particular to the Office of Libraries and Archives which will need to work very closely with other key players, namely the Office of Information and Communication, the Department of Planning and Implementation as well as the telecommunications carrier and regulatory bodies in effecting developments across the board within the information sector. How exactly the efforts of these agencies in relation to information sector developments are to be coordinated and directed will have to be addressed as each falls under the portfolio of a different Ministry.

The Key Sector Information Support ( KESISU ) Project , as originally formulated, needs to be brought into focus again. The overall objective to augment information resources in the major sectoral areas must been seen, not only in terms of printed and audio visual materials but also in terms of ICT (information and communication technologies ) and other infrastructure support. KESISU needs to be reviewed and treated as an integrated whole with funding support provided under UNDP or the World Bank in order that acceptable levels of provision in terms of resources and facilities are realised.

This in effect means funding support for the enhancement of information resources and infrastructure development at the national and provincial level and will need to be sustained for many years. At the same time, a realistic formulae for the disbursement of funds and an effective mechanism for its management and monitoring needs to be put in place.

Concerns were also expressed at the Waigani Seminar for the more effective implementation of the National Policy on Information and Communication of'Papua New Guinea. At the same time attention was drawn to the lack of provision for library and information services in the policy document.

In relation to the above, attention is drawn to the Final Draft of the Papua New Guinea National Policy for Library and Information Services, prepared by the Working Party on Policy, Library Council of Papua New Guinea in September 1991.

Although this early initiative has been overtaken by events, a number of the concerns reflected in the Final Draft provide a more comprehensive statement in respect of the library and information sector and needs to be given due consideration as part of the overall policy of the government.

Despite Government recognition of the importance of information in the National Policy on Information and Communication of Papua New Guinea, actual provisions on the ground do not adequately reflect, in terms of facilities, resources and services, the critical nature of information. The policy document however is relatively recent and needs to be supported by plans and programmes in order to give effect to policy tenets.

The people --- whether literate, semi-literate or illiterate --- need to be educated about `information'. The media, especially through TV and radio programmes could help to instil and inculcate recognition and awareness of the importance and value of information for the people generally. Higher education institutions as well as the schools system also have a critical role to play in this respect. Closely related is the Government's `Literacy and Awareness Programme' which was launched in the early nineties and needs to be assessed in terms of its performance and effectiveness.

Deficiencies in information resources and information provision in many key areas including small business, disaster preparation and relief, law and order, land matters, women, the handicapped and disabled and human rights surfaced at the Waigani Seminar. The need for resource enhancements in terms of recorded information --- a critical aspect of the national information infrastructure --- has already been alluded to in the Lee Report, the Library Development Plan for Papua New Guinea as well as the KESISU Project which specifically targeted `key sector' areas.

In PNG, the availability of recorded information for the vast majority of the population is quite limited due to a number of socio-economic factors. Quite apart from recorded information, even the availability of traditional knowledge and information --- largely unrecorded and transmitted by oral tradition --- is equally limited. PNG `s linguistic and cultural diversity has generated over the centuries a wealth of traditional knowledge that needs to be recorded, preserved, protected and made more accessible for the national benefit.

Traditional medicine, oral history, cultural traditions and folklore as well as traditional methods of communication represent a disappearing wealth.

The Waigani Seminar reflected a wide range of concerns in this regard. These concerns are multi faceted and need to be knit together into a programme of action, adequately funded and resourced, from which institutions, researchers and other concerned groups and individuals could draw sustenance from.

The truth is that information --- whether from national sources in recorded form; traditional knowledge through the oral tradition; individual expertise and experience or from the global storehouse of knowledge and information ---- is readily available and relatively `free', provided the necessary communication links and mechanisms are put in place and made affordable for all. However the cost of putting this infrastructure in place will require substantial investment and may necessitate Government and private sector partnership.

Notwithstanding the fact that `Information ` and `communication' provide the overall focus in the policy document, little is stated about the underlying telecommunications network which is quite critical in terms of providing nation wide access to information. Basic telephony services are a fundamental necessity in PNG and strategic measures need to be taken to upgrade the network progressively in order to facilitate data communication. PNG's physical terrain will impose great difficulties in expanding the terrestrial network and hence satellite, wireless and other technologies will have to be explored. The possibility of setting up telecentres and telekiosks on a country wide basis, possibly linked or centred on the public library service outlets, the distance education centres and other established mechanisms should not be overlooked.

The strategic IT agenda needs to dove tail into a broader national ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) strategy. Interest at the Waigani Seminar in the possibility of formulating a National Telecommunications Policy for PNG is most apposite and needs to be given due consideration.

Many of the initiatives for the progressive development of the national information infrastructure are dependent on effective manpower support, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. Adequate teaching personnel, hardware and software support as well as curriculum changes incorporating not only traditional library skills but also information technology and communication skills are of vital importance.

Information workers must become proficient not only in the processing and management of `information' but more importantly in their ability and skill in accessing, digesting, packaging and presenting information to suit consumption levels.

Information skills training has to be provided very widely and needs to be integrated with other curriculum areas. In fact it should become the norm not only in higher education institutions and in teacher training in PNG but also throughout the schools system. It is only with provisions such as this that PNG's human resources in IT, information and communications will emerge to provide effective support for the country as it moves into the 21 st century. The national policy provides some basis for this in policy terms and needs to be given effect to.

Initiatives to revive the Papua New Guinea Library Association ( PNGLA ) based on its constitution and to have it actively functioning by the end of 1997 needs to be actively encouraged and supported.

A proposal paper circulated during the Waigani Seminar for the establishment of an NGO with an overall interest in information and its communication in PNG is an initiative that needs to be explored further. Such an NGO, provisionally titled "Inform PNG", could operate more flexibly and harness cross sectoral interests more effectively.

While the overall improvement of information resources is necessary, financial constraints will always place a limit on the country's ability to acquire information resources. Notwithstanding this consideration, there must be national commitment in financial terms to the provision of acceptable levels of provision although substantial funding assistance from international aid agencies will continue to be necessary for many years.

Within the library and information sector, there is a need to foster and inculcate a spirit of cooperation and mutual support and to work with a sense of national mission. All resources of publicly funded institutions are in fact part of the total information resources of the nation and should be fully harnessed for the national good.

Improving and maximising access to information resources --- whether national or international --- needs to be given priority consideration. This underscores the critical need to upgrade the telecommunications infrastructure for the country.

©: Copyright 2002
By:  D E K Wijasuriya

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