Volunteering in Papua New Guinea

Discover volunteering opportunities in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbour.

About Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea has become a second home for hundreds of Australian volunteers who have supported development there since 1964.

Nicknamed the land of the unexpected, Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. No two provinces are the same, with each location rich in song, dance and local tradition. Almost 85% of the country's eight million people live in rural areas, including remote highlands and hundreds of islands.

Papua New Guinea is home to a vast variety of flora and fauna, with many species endemic and unique to the region. From crocodiles to orchids, birds of paradise, butterflies and abundant sea life, it is a treasure trove of natural delights. Papua New Guinea is also home to one of the world’s only poisonous birds – the Hooded Pitohui.

One of the world's least urbanised countries, Papua New Guinea has unique development challenges.

Australian volunteers in Papua New Guinea

Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of Papua New Guinean partner organisations to achieve their development goals for more than half a century. 

Volunteering opportunities in Papua New Guinea span a range of development priorities, including:

  • Heath
  • Education
  • IT
  • Infrastructure
  • Community and social development

Australian volunteers support partner organisations throughout the country.

Read about our impact in Papua New Guinea in 2019-2020

Australian volunteer Maintenance Manager Robert with colleague Kathlyn at the Port Moresby Nature Park. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Australian volunteer Maintenance Manager Robert with colleague Kathlyn at the Port Moresby Nature Park. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Australian volunteer Simon with Mai a farmer from Munix Village. Photo credit Harjono Djoyobisono
Australian volunteer Simon with Mai, a farmer from Munix Village. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Australian volunteer Elizabeth with Jill Bosro Manager of HELP Resources in Wewak. Photo credit Harjono Djoyobisono
Australian volunteer Elizabeth with Jill Bosro, Manager of HELP Resources in Wewak. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Aerial view of Morobe Province. Photo credit Harjono Djoyobisono
Aerial view of Morobe Province. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

Life as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea

Culture, communication and taboos

The majority of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas which are often isolated. Many communities still function through wantok (one talk, or shared language) systems, with their own customary laws, systems and practices that are partially recognised by the country’s constitution. The wantok system plays an important role in Papua New Guinean society; after family, they are the most important social support structure.

The general Papua New Guinean communication style is relaxed and open. Relationships between older and younger generations are easy, and men and women socialise together openly. Couples do not openly express affection in public but friends of the same sex may hold hands while walking. In some Papua New Guinean cultures it is customary among friends and family to stroke each other’s arms while talking.

Generally, in Papua New Guinean cultures it is not rude to stare. Personal space is relaxed as it is acceptable to crowd one another at a counter or to stand very close to others. However, when communicating, men and women who are not familiar with each other should remain at arm’s length. Papua New Guineans tend to communicate directly on general topics, however, people are culturally very sensitive and are easily shamed, so a more indirect style is common when it comes to sensitive issues.

Each community has its own taboos surrounding class, status, and custodianship of areas, and this differs between provinces and villages. The passing down of cultural artefacts, skills and customs is complex, and there are intricate rules around taboos and beliefs. General taboos include never stepping over food or pointing at someone, especially when in conversation – this can be perceived as gossiping about that person. Most people point with their chin - not their finger. There are many taboos in Papua New Guinean cultures around gender and sexuality.

Religion and dress

The dominant religion among Papua New Guinea is Christianity, followed by indigenous beliefs.

For Australians interested in volunteering in Papua New Guinea, we recommend patience, and a conservative and sensible approach. Comfortable, modest clothing is recommended, and while larger cities are less conservative, volunteers are recommended to blend in, rather than stand out.  

Language

Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse country in the world. The country has more than 800 unique living languages. After independence, Papua New Guinea adopted three official languages: English, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu.

Tok Pisin is a creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea and the most widely used language in the country. English is used by the government, courts and the education system and is widely understood. Volunteers are encouraged to learn basic Tok Pisin as the effort will be well received by the community.

Climate

The climate is tropical and pleasant, and can be split into two seasons: the rainy season (December to March) and the dry season (May to October). The average temperature is 28°C. Volunteers won’t need thick jackets, layers are useful for air conditioning and cooler evenings.

Papua New Guinea is in an active seismic area, and the most common natural disasters are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. 

Food  

Food plays an important part in Papua New Guinean cultures. Particular foods and their preparation vary greatly depending on location, and the availability of local produce. Food is always shared freely among friends and family even if there is only a small amount available. Traditional cooking is plain and important foods are coconut, fish, sago, bananas, cabbage, taro, cassava and sweet potato. These vary based on geographic area. Papua New Guineans generally buy their food at local markets or from vendors who travel through residential areas. In larger urban areas there are large supermarkets that stock Asian and western produce, but they are comparatively expensive.

 

Accommodation

Due to limited suitable housing, the Australian Volunteers Program sources appropriate accommodation on behalf of volunteers. Units are mostly housed within secure compounds which are tenanted by other volunteers or expat communities. The properties are fully furnished, but often require bedding and other personal effects.

Transport

Volunteers are not permitted to use public transport in Papua New Guinea. Partner organisations will provide transport for work, and the program provides secure transport services for after hours and weekend use.

Volunteers are not permitted to drive in Papua New Guinea, but this can be discussed on a case by case basis. The majority of volunteers, even if permitted, choose not to drive.

Personal safety

Volunteers need to aware of the reasonable risks of living in Papua New Guinea.

Violent crime, including armed robbery and carjacking, is common throughout the country, especially in urban areas such as Port Moresby, Lae and Mt Hagen. The settlement areas in these centers are particularly dangerous. Most of the time crime is opportunistic but organised criminal groups also operate in Papua New Guinea.

Tensions between ethnic or clan groups occur periodically, particularly in the Highlands region and in larger urban areas such as Lae and Port Moresby. These sometimes lead to outbreaks of tribal fighting, often involving the use of machetes or firearms. Disputes can escalate with little warning and can result in destruction of property, disruption to services and injuries or deaths. While foreigners are not usually targeted in this violence, volunteers should remain vigilant, stay clear of settlement areas and avoid large crowds or gatherings.

Volunteers are expected to adopt enhanced security measures while on assignment. Volunteers will be supported by robust procedures to reduce risk, allowing for a safe and rewarding experience.

Accessibility

We’re committed to ensuring that international volunteering is inclusive and accessible to Australians from a range of backgrounds, with diverse perspectives, identities and abilities. 

To support this, access and inclusion plans are available for volunteers with disabilities to assess their needs and ensure their living and working requirements are fully considered. Indigenous Pathways is an Indigenous-led program that focuses on providing culturally safe, flexible and tailored support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers.

Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Papua New Guinea, please do some further research on living in Papua New Guinea and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer. 

Sarah Bornstein PNG St John Ambulance 1
Australian volunteer Ambulance Clinical Support Officer Sarah, with St John Ambulance colleague Jermaine. Photo: Harijono Djoyobiso
Jess and Belden bottle
Belden (left) and Australian volunteer Jessica at Port Moresby Nature Park. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
Esther and Des
Australian volunteer Des (left) with Esther at Touching The Untouchables. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono