By Grace Nimmo
The Pacific Islands face a potential ‘lost decade’ as the current COVID-19 pandemic strains island nations’ economies, with limited options left other than extensive multi-year recovery packages financed by overseas development aid (ODA). This is particularly the case as colonial and imperial thinking and political wrangling persist under the guise of wealthy nations donating to “underdeveloped” nations for economic prosperity. Short-sighted strategies by wealthy nations prevent stability in vulnerable nations and pressures the public to hold governments accountable in their moral duty to support regional neighbours.
Finding solutions to environmental devastation and social harm is central to Pacific Island cultures. This requires immediate and drastic action with Indigenous voices at the forefront of solution forums. While the call for ODA is necessary for re-establishing the region’s economic stability, current aid and development programmes are exacerbating the impacts of ongoing environmental and historical injustice. Australia’s Pacific Seasonal Workers Programme, for example, has been criticised for ignoring historical contexts of the Pacific slave trade and surrounding prejudices regarding race, gender, and age Pacific South Sea Islanders experience, and largely benefitting Australia’s agricultural industry and stakeholders.
Many Island states in the Pacific are still managing the long-term effects of recent political and social unrest, which has greatly impacted the growing youth population. Corruption within the education system is becoming an increasingly widespread issue, particularly within Solomon Islands. Solomon Islands' government has been previously criticised for displaying clientelist politics over state-building efforts, exploiting the exchange of goods and services for political influence and favours. Corruption within Solomon Islands’ tertiary system has led to accusations of government ministers using discretionary powers to manipulate the scholarship approval process to reward family (nepotism) and associates (cronyism). Moreover, this type of fraud can have varying effects on the young population, from loss of trust in the government and the political process, to mental health issues.
Historically, external pressures from wealthy states and international financial organisations have greatly influenced many small and economically vulnerable states in policy-making and decisions. Today, many island states within the Pacific are still reliant on ODA or unsustainable extractive markets. As they are systematically forced to rely on external activities for income, limited economic expansion and self-determination in decision-making has rendered them incapable of mitigating and adapting to crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Inconsistent infrastructure across smaller islands and rural areas combined with rapid economic growth and urbanisation has exacerbated social, political, and environmental instability. Moreover, legitimate sovereignty and self-determination are integral to a strong nation and are lacking across the region. Increasing education consistently across the region and within Australia holds significant potential for reclaiming and strengthening agency, creativity, historical sensitivity, knowledge, and diverse languages.
Prioritising education and local knowledge could also contribute to ‘adaptive capacity’, the ability to learn from and adapt to environmental shocks and hazards. Facilitating access to scientific evidence, local governance, and creating local knowledge with youth-centred initiatives can potentially empower disadvantaged communities. Through youth participation other vulnerable groups such as those with a disability and the elderly may find it easier to participate in the discussion.
Bougainville in Papua New Guinea recognises the significance of local systems of authority and customary principles and practices. Emphasising custom has enabled women to argue for their matrilineal status to be recognised in state decision-making procedures, and significantly contributed to peacebuilding within the region. It is important to acknowledge that the increase in female self-autonomy (especially reproductive health autonomy) has strained tensions for some local groups who want to maintain traditional gender roles. This only reinforces the importance of strong policies and legal frameworks as well as increased land rights and protection to economically empower marginalised groups. Most Pacific Island nations possess small, slow-growing economies that are not creating enough jobs to keep pace with the rapid population growth. The informal economy (neither taxed or regulated by the government) accounts for up to 85% of the total market in some nations, and is therefore an integral aspect of local island economic survival. Sustainable, practical, and environmentally-viable reward proposals could potentially provide incentive for youth engagement in this sector. As one third to one quarter of school-leavers acquire formal sector employment, there is a significant youth population in poverty due to limited employment opportunities.
Increasing education and employment in the Pacific Islands is crucial to strengthening connections to locals and other nations. Awareness surrounding social issues and environmental vulnerability enables communities and individuals to make free and informed decisions that potentially impact their wider community. For example, Solomon Islands have struggled for decades with logging which has exacerbated social and economic tensions. Despite increasing awareness for the unsustainability of logging, many choose to log for financial reasons. Government action has been reluctant to prevent this as logging is a major contributor to national and rural economies, accounting for around 50-70% of Solomon Island’s annual export revenue. Education provides sustainable solutions for landowners by understanding long-term effects of logging, while also providing more employment options for youths.
Efforts for increased education and digital infrastructure within Pacific Island nations and across the region could reinforce a global multilateral framework incorporating organisations and states to support island states. More robust digital infrastructure and internet connectivity across Pacific Island states could facilitate inclusive discussion for youths and marginalised groups. Additionally, The World Bank has suggested that improving digital connectivity and internet access could contribute more than $5 billion into the region’s GDP with a growing information and communications sector. Accessing and dispersing information from global sources also holds potential for increasing public satisfaction as rural areas are exposed to new information. As small island nations and larger states become digitally connected, maintaining regular diplomatic engagements with their counterparts abroad eases. Digital commerce, diplomacy, governance, or health services can only be as effective or extensive as the underlying infrastructure.
Fostering genuine connections and partnerships between Australia and the Pacific Islands requires extensive re-evaluation of Pacific Island interests and a greater sense of moral duty among Australia’s public and government foreign policies. Youth populations hold unique perspectives as both representatives of the “generation most-affected” and of “future generations”. The majority of Australian youth are simultaneously aware of their power and are enabled to act upon their beliefs due to a societal understanding of the significance of youth perspectives and educational opportunity. As such, increasing awareness for social justice among Australia’s youth is integral to enforcing government change, particularly as we move further from fossil fuel dependencies and hone in on renewable resources and environmental protection strategies.
This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.