FINDING SOLUTIONS TO THE CHALLENGES facing the youth of Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific does not lie in words and more words but in solidarity in word and deed.
The most compelling witness to the strength of young people in PNG and South Pacific is to be seen as tomorrow’s leaders. To ensure this we must demonstrate an understanding of today’s issues.
Here’s my take on some of them.
Insecurity affecting our societies
Insecurity is increasingly one of the issues affecting the younger populations in much of the Pacific.
In most countries, youth accounts for 30-40% of the population. This is a telling statistic mainly because of the impact it will have on services, infrastructure and on the nature of politics and economics.
But our young people are bored. School students have little to do after school. Unemployment is high which means many young people have nothing to do after they leave school. They wander the streets; they hang around shops and cinemas on weekends. There is a growing incidence of experimental sex and crime - girls with babies and boys with guns.
The crux of the matter is that there are not enough employment opportunities and hence, youth does not feel it is meaningfully participating and gaining from the economy. Our highly educated young people are likely to turn to violent means to fulfil their aspirations. This will undermine both our fledgling democracies and the source of creating and distributing wealth – our economies.
There also has been breakdown of the institutions of marriage and family, where recent statistics suggest that one in five marriages do not last longer than 10 years. Moreover, there is an explosion of squatter settlements in and around the urban centres of our islands.
Those who came and settled have either lost their land, moved because of increasing rural poverty or to give their children a better chance of quality education and health services that they would not otherwise get in rural areas. Consequently, there is an increase in the population of homeless and landless families, street children and the violent physical and or sexual abuse of women and children in some of our island countries.
Adding to this is a particular development within the area of urbanisation and migration. A growing number of people now have two or three homes in village, city and overseas. This may be leading to some confusion in values because of the possibility that children will grow up with uncles and aunts rather than parents.
The affected generation will soon form their own sub-culture contributing to insecurity.
Climate change in our societies
The issue of climate change and sea level rise is threatening the very existence of some of our people. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared our region is three times more at risk because of climate change than are developed countries.
The World Health Organisation regional advisor to the Pacific has reported that up to 10,000 people will be affected or could be dying each year as a result of factors associated with global warming such as severe weather and mosquito-borne disease. Moreover, the number of deaths due to natural disaster – droughts, floods and storms – has increased by 30-40%. Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga and recently Solomon Islands, have seen devastating cyclones, tsunamis and floods in recent years.
It is interesting to note that a new phenomenon is emerging - climate induced resettlement. Climate change just does not endanger human beings and their socio-political environment. It threatens to obliterate many life forms that the natural and human ecosystems depend on for survival and continuity of existence.
John van Klinekn writes: “From 1850–1950, one animal species vanished per year. In 1989, it was one per day and in 2000 it was one per hour. Within 50 years, 25% of animal and plant species will vanish due to global warming and climate change.”
And there is more than climate change. Great problems are also caused by the unchecked intrusion of human beings, often driven by greed for wealth and power, into the delicate balance of natural environment. This is seen in indiscriminate logging and mining and over consumption and inappropriate application of bio-technology.
The disturbing and challenging lesson for us as young people is that we cannot afford to deny the gravity of the present ecological crisis. In religious language, as Ed Ayers writes, “God has given us an offer: to see the consequences of our actions and assume moral responsibility for them, or to be consumed by them.” This is an offer that we cannot afford to ignore.
Pacific leaders in various sectors of our island nations – governments, churches, NGOs and civil society groups - have expressed concern that Pacific communities contribute minimally toward global warming and climate change, yet we are amongst the most affected and vulnerable people.
The eroding of shorelines due to sea level rise is not simply about geomorphic changes. Rise in sea level and the resultant eroding of shorelines have a direct effect on people’s lives in many ways.
In part one can agree that the growing despair among our people has to do with the sheer pace of the change we are experiencing. And consequently a huge gap has opened up between the transformations happening around us and people’s ability to respond.
The material culture, such as technology, is being transformed faster than non-material culture, such as the modes of governance and social norms. When the external (material) world is changing faster than the internal (ideology and spiritual) world, our environment becomes intensely bewildering and threatening. Societies take time to change and so do people.
The point is that while we and our people may be adaptive we are not made for constant and relentless change. Breakdown of the institutions of social life Another more significant factor, alluded to above, is the breakdown of the institutions of social life, and hence the increasing loss of a sense of permanency. In the past, our people coped with change because we have what Alvin Toffler calls “personal stability zones” or “life anchors”.
These were aspects of our lives that do not easily change, if at all. Of these, the most important were a job for life, marriage for life and a place for life. These gave our people a sense of economic, personal and geographic continuity and permanency. Today, however, these things are increasingly hard to find. Paid jobs are less permanent and employment is increasingly part-time, short-term and contractual.
Marriage, as religiously and socially accepted and recognised by law as between a man and a woman, and which is the very matrix of community for any society, is being eroded by serial relationships, same sex unions, cohabitation and divorce.
The very concept of belonging to a village, a community, a neighbourhood – somewhere we call home - is slowly disappearing. Our people travel and move often in search of work and employment or for better healthcare and educational opportunities.
The result of this increasing fluidity of existence is that we face an increasing level of uncertainty with the minimum of resources to protect us against insecurity and external changes. Change has become systemic and consequently we begin to feel we no longer have control over our lives. Such a situation gives rise to what social scientist call “social poverty”. It relates to the degree of apathy or indifference to the plight of the most disadvantaged among us.
Until now, our neighbour has been the one who shares our ethnicity, denomination and religion. That works well when our horizons do not go beyond the boundary of our village or settlement. We know exactly who we are, our role and our status. It was on these relationships that our ethics were constructed and applied. However, when our world becomes larger than our villages and settlements, ethics become more problematic.
As young people of the Pacific, our response to these underlying changes and challenges may become an oppressive burden. Faced with choices, our people need wisdom. Our young people are one of the rich resources at this time.
We need the wisdom that will sustain our place in nature and what constitutes the proper goals of our societies and personal lives. We need to build communities; shape lives and tell the stories that explain us to ourselves. We need to frame the rituals that express our aspirations and identities. We must now possess the power to choose, act and take responsibility for our destiny.
We need to rediscover ourselves as young men and women – future leaders for tomorrow. We must reclaim the belief that the source of action and responsibility lies within ourselves. That is the first step.
The second step is that we should start to think globally and to think of humanity as a single moral community linked by mutual responsibility. Our present Pacific context compels us, as young people, to seek a new way of engaging with our people’s struggle for meaning and purpose.
Because we are not products of forces beyond our control, we need a moral vision that situates the source of action and responsibility within ourselves. The construction of such a vision will, therefore out of necessity, include the key values of human dignity, justice, compassion, hope and peace.
Suggestions and considerations
Firstly, there is a need in a Youth Network Program on formation in ethics and morality, governance, social justice and stewardship at the international, regional, national and local levels. However, such a program would be more than just another meeting or conference but would involve lifestyles and perspective changes over a number of years.
Secondly, there is a big need to encourage Youth population to participate more actively on this journey. The older we are, the deeper our roots are in the past and the less able we are to see ways in which the future is developing.
Do we want to keep hearing opinions from the past or aspirations for the future?
Reuben Mete recently led a PNG and South Pacific delegation at an international leadership consultation for global youth leaders. You can read Reuben’s blog here