The biggest development challenge facing Papua New Guinea over the next 10-20 years is the demographic youth bulge. 54% of the population of 8 million people are under the age of 25, and that proportion is increasing. Policymakers and program managers lack understanding – of the significance of the youth bulge for the future of PNG, and the appropriate policy responses.
In August at the PNG Update, a conference collaboration between the Australian National University and the University of PNG, Oaktree launched a major report which discusses the issue of the youth bulge and makes policy recommendations for aid organisations and donors. The Youth Bulge in Papua New Guinea: Challenges and Opportunities explores how the youth bulge affects, and is influenced by, different aspects of Papua New Guinean society, from the dominance of extractive industries to traditional conceptions of leadership. We find that the youth bulge is increasing the likelihood of political violence, will put increasing pressure on basic service delivery, and that without significant investment in improving the economic and political opportunities available to young people, these problems will persist.
This current period of rapid social change presents many challenges. The young generation are marginalised by many social and economic structures that exclude them from decision-making processes. Stable employment in the formal sector is elusive and there is a lack of opportunity for meaningful participation in economic life. This is largely the result of decades of economic mismanagement, which prioritised the extractive industries at the expense of developing a more diverse and broad-based economy. Young people are also largely excluded from civic and social decision-making processes. This is the result of the complex intersection between traditional conceptions of leadership, which emphasise the superiority of elders, and contemporary civic institutions that reflect these cultural attitudes. Young people are often trapped between expectations that they succeed in the modern economy of PNG and social conventions actively preventing them from doing so.
The 2017 National elections in Papua New Guinea seemed to demonstrate that the role of young people may be slowly changing. Though there were many problems with the integrity of the electoral roll, and reports of election related violence across the volatile highlands region, a few electorates showed an unprecedented enthusiasm for younger candidates. Bryan Kramer won the Madang open seat after a campaign that focused closely on the advocacy and needs of youth. Rainbow Paita Towo was elected MP in Morobe province, and at 30 years old he is the youngest Member of Parliament. In Chimbu, a 24 year old candidate came second in his race – but what was notable about his campaign is that he rejected the ‘money politics’ of vote buying and pork-barrelling tactics which are frequently embraced by candidates. Young people were also extremely vocal during the election campaign, and were instrumental in the campaign strategies of many candidates. These developments represent a slow but profound shift in attitudes towards the acceptance of young people in political life. This trend towards increasing participation in civic space must be nurtured.
At the International Youth Day celebrations on the 12th of August in Port Moresby, the atmosphere was vibrant. Many youth organisations working throughout PNG came together to celebrate youth taking the future into their own hands. There were dance performances, rallying speeches, laughter, and smiles. The biggest takeaway from the day for many was that the energy and vitality of the young generation should be channelled to solve PNG’s problems. The International Youth Day celebrations and the elections have demonstrated the power that the youth in Papua New Guinea could have. If the country is to mature and reach its full potential, Papua New Guinea must be taking active measures to carve out space for young people to participate. We propose that it is essential to offer young people a stake in society, allowing them to make decisions about the things that are important to them and help shape their own future. We advocate for widespread adoption of youth participation practice, to ameliorate or mitigate these problems.
Papua New Guinea is a young, complex country faced with the variety of challenges and opportunities that come with adolescence. The dramatic social changes that are taking place here are fomenting anger, frustration, and an increasing sense of desperation among young people. There are however reasons to be optimistic about the future of Papua New Guinea. If the government and wider civil society respond to the changes, then the frustrations of adolescence could be rewarded with a promising and prosperous maturity.
Alexander (Sandy) McLachlan
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- The Youth Bulge in Papua New Guinea: Challenges and Opportunities - September 26, 2017