Papua New Guinea – Challenges and opportunities in the digital worlds of displacement-affected communities

Reaching Iowara refugee settlement in Western Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a challenge. The nearest city, Kiunga, is accessible through a combination of boat and car although rainy season can easily take out the road, leaving access by foot as the only option. In many parts of the country, this challenging geography and lack of infrastructure has created major barriers to the development and maintenance of connectivity infrastructure. Iowara however, benefits from a Digicel tower next to the settlement but the tower, which provides the majority of the 11 villages with connectivity, does occasionally face energy challenges due to delays to fuelling that is done by helicopter.

In recent research, entitled The Digital Lives of Displacement-Affected Communities, GSMA worked with UNHCR and The Research People to investigate how the West Papuan refugees who reside in Iowara, and the local communities who host them, interact with their mobile phones.

The West Papuan refugees who reside in Iowara consider themselves to be “forgotten refugees of the world”, as they have received very little attention and support from the international humanitarian community. Literacy levels are relatively low as few can afford school beyond the primary level, contributing to the underdeveloped mobile ecosystem in Iowara. While mobile phone ownership was much higher than the national average at 89%, this high penetration rate is very likely due to a recent distribution of phones by Save the Children. Overall, the mobile ecosystem was characterised by limited and intermittent usage of basic functions like calling and SMS. Interviews suggest that a small group of individuals with higher income levels serve as “digital connectors”, helping their neighbours to access more advanced functions like paying school fees.


So, what are the challenges that have led to this relatively underdeveloped mobile ecosystem? There were five main barriers that emerged in the research that led to lower access and use of mobile technology:

  • Low purchasing power: The cost of phones was the most cited reason people did not own a phone or have sufficient airtime. There are very limited employment opportunities in Iowara, most people are farmers: 36% of residents engage in subsistence farming and about 50% can sell some of their produce in Kiunga.
  • Low digital literacy rates: Many people, 64%, who didn’t have access to the internet cited “not knowing how to use it by themselves” as the main barrier. This impacted women in particular and created a culture of fear around the consequences of pressing the wrong button. During the research there was a huge demand from participants for greater training and information about how to use their phones.
  • Language: Users who didn’t speak English reported that this posed a barrier to perform more advanced tasks beyond making a phone call. Initial set up is often in English, posing barriers.
  • Electricity/charging: Interviewees largely relied on solar charging points that are unreliable and often compromised by overcast weather. 76% of respondents said they were unable to charge their phones reliably at home.

In addition to these five barriers, respondents also had concerns about some of the negative content that increased connectivity exposes them to. Users cited financial scams as a risk they were aware of and that 7% of respondents had directly been negatively impacted by them. Likewise, misinformation was a concern. Respondents were worried about doctored images of people having affairs circulating and as well as conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 and the vaccine.


Despite these challenges, the research also identified opportunities for digital development in Iowara.

  • First, and most broadly, there was a huge demand for digital literacy training. People wanted to learn more about how to use their phones. Given the recently increased ownership of phones due to the Save the Children distribution, this presents a huge opportunity. Those who used their phones cited uses like leisure and social connection, which can have positive social impacts on mental health. Additionally, increased digital literacy could help to mitigate some of the risks identified from scams and misinformation.
  • Climate resilience is another area of opportunity. While most residents of Iowara work in farming and agree that climate change is impacting their livelihoods, almost nobody was using their phones to learn more about climate-resilient farming techniques or to access weather forecasting data. Increased training and services in this area could positively impact the community.
  • While conducting this research, Save the Children conducted one of the first ever (in PNG) mobile-money-enabled cash assistance programme. Digicel introduced a mobile money product in PNG called CellMoni. While uptake thus far has been relatively low, the research highlighted that mobile financial services are used in Iowara to meet basic needs and that many are incredibly financially vulnerable. Humanitarian cash transfers, leveraging mobile money, have the potential to increase financial inclusion and financial well-being, especially in a context like PNG where few people have access to bank accounts.

More opportunities and recommendations for how to maximise the impact of mobile technology while minimising risks in Iowara can be found in the case study.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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