Published on 30th October 2015
VSA volunteers are working to ensure the largest youth population in the world aren't left behind.
Travelling to school in Solomon Islands is not always easy. Schools are built where the government has land, which means more often than not they’re scenic, but remote. Kay and Les Dawson volunteered with the Isabel Education Authority, and in his two years, Les did the tour of the island’s schools six times. He set out before first light in a long boat captained by a guide with the sea running in his veins.
“Some trips meant we were out in the open sea for up to six hours,” Les says, “then it’s a 45-minute walk through the bush to the school.”
You work hard for your education in the Pacific. In Isabel Province, students board, as there’d be no way to make the trip every day. The schools have no power, so supplies are brought in just like Les was – by longboat and on foot – and the diet is non-perishable noodles and tinned fish, supplemented by the school gardens. Maintaining the schools is an uphill battle, thanks to the same access issues.
While education is slowly improving, 26% of male and 32% of female Solomon Islanders aged 15-29 are non-literate. Despite that, Kay says, the kids are multilingual:
“They speak at least four languages: their mother tongue, the local vernacular, Pijin and English. There is so much untapped capability.”
As those kids come of age, they’re graduating from primary school in a world that doesn’t necessarily offer them employment opportunities. Against this backdrop, in August, director of the UNDP Helen Clark delivered the annual Sir Paul Reeves memorial lecture, shining a spotlight on some of the greatest challenges and opportunities the world faces now.
There are 1.8 billion people aged between 15 and 24 today, Clark said, the highest proportion the world has ever seen. As she explained, “The energy, hopes, and innovation of this large youth generation can bring a huge demographic dividend to countries. But the opposite is also true. A generation with many unemployed, alienated, and disengaged youth is not a recipe for peace and harmony. Around our world, youth are disproportionately unemployed, and often lack access to quality and affordable services.”
Two million of those young people live in the Pacific. In the countries where VSA works, around 20% of the population is aged 15-24 (compared to 14% in New Zealand). They make up a third of the working age population, but are twice as likely to be unemployed as their older counterparts.
Kesaya Baba is Programme Officer (Melanesia) at VSA, and is Chair of the Board of Directors for the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, an international advocacy organisation. Her Master’s research explored the ways in which youth issues can be included in New Zealand-based Pacific development initiatives. She says “traditionally in development and traditionally in society too, young people are overlooked.”
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had an emphasis on health and education for children, particularly those under the age of five. The successes of the MDGs need follow-through, Kesaya says:
“Now we’re seeing a youth population which is much healthier and more educated than ever before, but they are missing out on those programmes to help them take the next step.”
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were launched in September and will shape global development for the next 15 years, contain more references to young people as governments and development organisations recognise the “demographic dividend” Clark spoke about in her lecture. Kesaya says “I see it as a feedback cycle. Investing in young people contributes to the economy because they’re able to participate in meaningful work, and economic development then has a positive feedback on youth development.” When they have the ability, Kes adds, young people are some of the greatest advocates for pressing issues such as climate change and gender equality.
Too often, she says, young people are seen as a problem, due to drug and substance abuse, and teen pregnancy. “One thing that came out really strongly from my research is that issues around young people need to be recognised as symptomatic of wider issues. Why are those young people turning to substance abuse? In Bougainville, it’s because there’s nothing else for them to do. So VSA’s projects around small business, for instance, are in an indirect way contributing to improving the situation for youth.”
Many VSA programmes have a youth component because of the focus on marginalised portions of the population, from small business support to vocational training, education and sexual and reproductive health.
More development agencies like VSA are starting to recognise the need to support young people, Kesaya says:
“I think it’s really important to have a positive stance on youth development. Young people’s voices must be heard.”