August 17, 2023

Youth bulge in the region: what are the development opportunities?

“Humanity depends on the boundless energy, ideas and contributions of youth everywhere.”

This past Saturday was International Youth Day, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged support to young people to shape a ‘just and sustainable world’.

When the Lab ran the development policy Pulse Check last year, a higher than expected number of experts noted the youth bulge in the region as something that needs more attention through the aid program. This was flagged in the storm of economic hardship post-pandemic, state's ability to provide for citizens, and realism over who will bear the brunt of the climate crisis.

As the new development policy lands and we move into the world of implementation, the team here have been wondering: rather than mitigating a risk, how can we dive on the opportunities presented by large youth populations? Here’s what the experts had to say.

Vanessa Erleen Teutao
Consultant, Future Economies, Tetra Tech International Development

As a young Pacific Islander, I believe our region’s youth bulge offers numerous opportunities for development in our communities. Our generation possesses energy and innovative thinking that can fuel economic growth and development. By investing in education, skills training, and entrepreneurship, we can become job creators rather than job seekers. This potential can contribute to sectors like technology, renewable energy, tourism, and creative industries, diversifying our economies and reducing dependence on traditional sectors.

The youth bulge provides a chance to address social issues and promote inclusivity. Our generation is socially conscious and actively engaged in advocating for human rights, gender equality, climate action, and sustainable development. By leveraging our collective voice, we can mobilise for positive change and push for policies that address inequality, promote social justice, and ensure everyone has access to quality healthcare, education, and basic services.

Furthermore, the youth bulge allows for the exchange of ideas and cultural enrichment. We can foster regional and international collaborations, promoting cultural diversity and understanding. By embracing our unique cultural heritage and sharing it with the world, we can strengthen our identity and contribute to the global cultural dialogue.

However, to harness these development opportunities, it is crucial for our governments, institutions and development partners to invest in youth empowerment programs, provide quality education and training, and create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and innovation. Additionally, involving young people in decision-making processes is vital to ensure their voices are heard and valued.

The youth bulge in the Pacific offers immense opportunities for development that can shape our region's future. As young Pacific Islanders, we have the potential to drive economic growth, promote social change, and contribute to cultural enrichment. With the necessary support and investment, we can become agents of positive transformation and lead our nations towards a prosperous and sustainable future.

Vanessa is an international development practitioner and small business owner from Solomon Islands and Kiribati, currently in Australia completing an Australia Awards Scholarship. Prior to joining Tetra Tech, Vanessa was a senior program manager at the Australian High Commission in Solomon Islands, where she worked across Australia’s aid development program. At the Lab, we seriously admire Vanessa’s depth of expertise, willingness to share her insights, and commitment to driving high quality development outcomes.

Dr Aidan Craney
Research Fellow, Institute for Human Security, La Trobe University

The challenges facing Pacific youth are multiple. Locally, too few have access to quality education and stable employment, all while being socially pressured to be seen but not heard. Existentially, they have to grapple with the climate crisis, continued challenges born of the pandemic, and escalating geopolitical posturing. Arguably, the greatest obstacle to harnessing the potential of young people in the region is the perception that they are a security risk.

Pacific youth have proven themselves repeatedly in the past decade as active leaders, particularly on issues of social justice and the climate crisis. Two changes in how we think about and engage with young people in the region have the potential to reap dividends.

One: Revolutionise Pacific education systems to reflect local ways of being and knowing, as well as to connect education pathways to more realistic livelihood opportunities. The teams behind the Pacific Regional Education Framework and Re-thinking Pacific Education Initiative by Pacific Peoples for Pacific Peoples have the evidence and expertise to lead such efforts.

Two: Governments and development actors should treat youth as a cross-cutting issue. All policies passed by Pacific governments and programs funded by donors should identify the anticipated social and economic impacts on young people, with local youth involved in these processes.

Youth have been decried as feckless and morally void for thousands of years (they’re not; you’re just biased). By engaging with them and recognising their strengths, we can work with these young people to create positive developmental futures for the Pacific.

Aidan is an interdisciplinary researcher focused on understanding social change in the Pacific, especially in youth leadership and livelihoods. Alongside his work at the Institute for Human Security, he is also a Research Fellow on the ARC Discovery Project on The future of the Pacific: Youth leadership and civic engagement, and author of Youth in Fiji and Solomon Islands: Livelihoods, leadership and civic engagement (ANU Press, 2022). At the Lab, we love Aidan’s no-nonsense way with words, and his staunch approach to inclusion.

Zahra Al Hilaly
Co-CEO, Oaktree Australia

Whilst Asia and the Pacific region is not a monolith, we have undeniably seen a collective rise in young people actively contributing to the development of their communities. The motivation behind this surge is often sought by the recurring notion that youth voices are being left behind in discussions of progressive development. This is why youth entrepreneurship is often the only key route for young leaders to build opportunities to address the sustainable development goals within their respective communities.

Amidst the customary opportunities that entrepreneurship offers - including economic growth, job creation and technological advancements - young people rise beyond these tides, creating major impacts that economically diversify their landscapes, and foster ecosystems that can alleviate poverty. The income-generating opportunities that are tied to entrepreneurial ventures invoke emerging industries that can both tap into new markets, but also, serves as an avenue to promote the inclusion of young people’s participation in sustainable practices. Whilst young people play a crucial role in addressing grassroots challenges, their creative drive in developing their communities has transformed social impact streams in the Asia and the Pacific region as one that successfully serves a culture of innovation and transformation.

But there’s more to do. Many young people are consistently seeking different entrepreneurial ventures (and therefore driving development) because they are unable to be integrated within systems and structures of the traditional development space, which is very exclusive of youth voices. While innovation and entrepreneurship can be seen on the one hand as a brilliant participatory method to include missing voices, on the other there’s a question over why we’re not fixing existing development initiatives that already hold the investment and power to create change. To seize the opportunities of youth in development, I would start here.

Zahra is an advocate for gender equality, refugee rights and equitable representation within decision making both in Australia and abroad. A prominent grassroots leader, she has been named a finalist for WA Young Australian of the Year (2023), Young Muslim of the Year (2020), one in 25 Young Women to Watch in International Affairs and the inaugural winner Under 25’s Rising Star for the 40-Under-40 Asian Australian Leadership Awards. At the Lab, we’re in awe watching Zahra go from strength to strength.

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