Celebrating the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples today brings us back to the beginning of our work 50 years ago. Our founders, Betty Bryant Silverstein and Father Stan Hosie, saw first-hand that the world had forgotten the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific, despite the many sacrifices the island communities endured during World War II. So, they started the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific (later to be known as Counterpart International).

In 1969, under their direction, a survey of eight South Pacific islands showed that “the peoples of the South Pacific were receiving virtually no international aid and were in desperate need of assistance.” The survey also called attention to the Pacific nations’ “growing requirements for education.”

Students in Papua New Guinea with Counterpart co-founder Betty Silverstein.

Students in Papua New Guinea with Counterpart co-founder Betty Silverstein.

Betty would go on to plead “for a little recognition for the South Pacific people – the Melanesians, Polynesians, and Micronesians, spread thinly over the enormous ocean we call the Pacific.” Betty and Father Stan’s first meeting with the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of Private and Voluntary Cooperation to officially register FSP, is illustrative of what would become the organization’s central mission, and still remains so today.

Based on a recollection in Father Stan’s book, The House that Betty Built, the meeting went like this:

The women who interviewed us was polite and friendly but puzzled as she asked us a series of questions:

“Are you a refugee agency?”

“No.”

“Are you a children’s agency?”

“No.”

“Ah, so you must be a food agency?”

“No.”

“Perhaps an animal agency?”

“No.”

“Then what do you do?” she asked with some exasperation.

“We help local communities build the structures which enable them to solve their own problems,” we answered proudly.

There was a long silence and the lady finally said, “I am afraid that you do not fit any category which will qualify you for registration.”

Indeed – that concept, that local communities should drive their own destinies – was quite a radical idea then. Luckily, Congressman Ted Kupferman, who recognized the urgent need for FSP’s approach helped the organization get the registration needed. With donations from a thrift shop Betty owned and eventually USAID funds, Pacific island communities began to receive the resources they needed to solve their own problems and improve the lives of their people.

Results of the same 1969 survey of South Pacific islands also emphasized that “…indigenous leadership is urgently needed in all territories.” FSP understood the imperative of local ownership and the need for improved educational resources. Soon, FSP was advancing projects such as the first indigenously-owned coconut plantation in Papua New Guinea, the Hango Agricultural Training School in Tonga, and a Tutu regional training school in Fiji.

On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations noted that, “…the education sector not only mirrors the historical abuses, discrimination and marginalization suffered by indigenous peoples, but also reflects their continued struggle for equality and respect for their rights as peoples and as individuals.” While this would be discouraging to Betty and Father Stan, if they were here today, they would insist that we work even harder on behalf of indigenous peoples.

Nursing students in Papua New Guinea

Students in a nursing training in Papua New Guinea.

As the world focuses on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030, Betty Silverstein and Father Stan would be the first on their feet to applaud UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who said,

“Let us commit to ensuring indigenous peoples are not left behind as we pursue the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

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