By BENNY SANDEKA
THE debate on the country's literacy rate is a contentious issue among practitioners, development planners, policymakers and other stakeholders.
Depending on which side you are on - whether you believe that PNG has a high rate of illiteracy and that something must be done to address this issue or you believe Papua New Guineans are literate in one way or another.
Literacy, according to the universally accepted definition, is the ability to read and write and understand the written words in any language. One is considered literate when he/she can read and write and make sense of the written word while those who cannot do so, are considered illiterate.
Different sources give different rates of literacy in this country. The official figure which the National Literacy awareness Council Secretariat, the working arm of the National Literacy Awareness Council, wants to go by is 56.2 per cent. But a non-governmental organisation, PNG Education Advocacy Network (PEAN) believes the level of the country's literacy rate is much lower because interviewers during the last national census only asked the head of the household and did not verify with each occupant of a house. Backed with their survey results in parts of the country, PEAN argues that by being present in a classroom does not make a child literate as may be considered by the head of the household at that time.
Given these problems, stakeholders of literacy in this country are back on the drawing board. This time, trying to define what literacy means in PNG context before it is once again included in Census 2010. These stakeholders want to capture the meaning of literacy from a PNG perspective so that when interviewers of the national census go out to the provinces, they can get what it really means to be literate in a PNG context.
Willie Jonduo, the man at the helm of literacy in this country believes Papua New Guineans are literate without even knowing how to read and write. He said for instance, even though a villager does not know how to read and write, when a literate person shows him/her what buttons to press on a mobile phone to make a call or check his balance, that person can automatically know exactly what buttons to press without further assistance.
Mr Jonduo argues reading and writing alone cannot make one literate in PNG as Papua New Guineans have long observed times and seasons and without any written laws, they know exactly what they can do.
While concurring with Mr Jonduo, Dr Andrew Ikupu, the man who introduced the vernacular literacy in elementary schools, believes there is still need for reading and writing as a measure of literacy in PNG.
Dr. Ikupu said the level of literacy as defined by its universal definition is in urgent need now in PNG. He said, Papua New Guineans, especially the landowners in the PNG LNG impact areas are signing agreements without fully knowing and understanding their contents.
Dr Ikupu with help from Mr. Jonduo are spearheading moves to ensure all training providers in the country are properly monitored to ensure training programs deliver high quality technical and professional literate persons.
This will be done through a proposed National Literacy Institute. This proposed institute has received backing from UNESCO PNG office as well as the regional office in Apia, Western Samoa.
But despite being inbuilt into past census enumeration exercises, the level of government support towards improving the level of literacy to date is totally poor or non-existent. Dr Ikupu and Mr Jonduo believes the proposed National Literacy Institute will raise the profile of the efforts towards improving literacy - as defined by both universal meaning and the meaning in PNG context - to new levels.