Recently, the Lowy Institute published a brief analysis of the population ‘youth bulge’ of Pacific states. This is an important and timely primer. As author, Catherine Wilson, notes some half of the regional population is under the age of 23. The developmental futures of Pacific states are intrinsically intertwined with the opportunities available to their youth populations.
The overview provided an insightful snapshot of the issues being faced by the young people of the region. Rather than repeating lazy claims often associated with youth bulge theory that large youth populations necessitate a security risk, Wilson looked at the education and employment opportunities and challenges young people face in the Pacific. She also identified social issues that they must navigate, including those related to mental health, gender based violence and increasing rates of poor nutrition.
One sticking point for me, however, was a brief mention of the capacity of entrepreneurship to provide livelihood opportunities for young people whose formal employment opportunities are poor. Although the discussion of entrepreneurship was brief it reflected a trend in development discourse in the region that views entrepreneurship as the great hope for driving down unemployment and boosting economic growth. This is visible in the abundance of youth livelihood and development projects and programs in the Pacific that include a focus on entrepreneurship.
During research conducted in 2015 I located at least five such programs in Honiara alone. I even worked in one such project in Fiji in 2012 and 2013. So entrenched has entrepreneurship become in the discourse around how to provide ‘development’ to youth in a way that benefits national economies that Fiji has mainstreamed it as a priority area for youth employment through the ‘Youth Entrepreneurship Scheme’ (YES). YES is designed to provide seed funding, business training and mentoring to potential entrepreneurs who have been unsuccessful in securing traditional financing.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the proliferation of programs aimed at enhancing the entrepreneurial capacity of Pacific youth is largely a result of interest for such projects from large donor bodies. Recent conversations that I have had with staff from multiple such agencies have confirmed the continued enthusiasm for supporting such projects.
Whether donor driven or a product of government policy, the bright red flag for such initiatives is the lack of evidence as to their efficacy.
Wilson cites a paper by Daniel Evans examining the employment landscape for Honiara youth. In an environment where youth entrepreneurial projects are abundant, Evans’ paper curiously appears to be the only piece of academic work that discusses such projects in any depth. In it he writes, ‘for an economy like Solomon Islands an entrepreneurial or capital-centric approach should take priority over formal employment programs, or, at the very least, be of equal relevance.’
Evans’ assertion speaks to broader challenges that Pacific states face in terms of being able to grow their formal economies, largely as a result of their geographical isolation. His support for exploring entrepreneurship programs as a means to reduce youth unemployment and grow the economy of Solomon Islands is measured, however. Evans particularly notes that inadequate data is being captured and disaggregated regarding the efficacy of entrepreneurship streams within youth employment programs.
Given the proliferation of youth employment projects and programs with entrepreneurial streams across the Pacific, the lack of data regarding their effectiveness is surprising. A 2015 review of the Solomon Islands-based [email protected] program – regarded as an exemplar in Melanesia – found no significant improvement in employment outcomes for graduates compared to young people who had not accessed such a program.
I am not suggesting that [email protected] is a flawed program. Far from it. As I have reported elsewhere, it has been important in reframing young people in Honiara as an asset rather than a threat.
Entrepreneurship can be an important component of long term planning to address economic and social issues that are compounded by the large youth populations of the Pacific. The potential for entrepreneurship to drive economic growth and employment is limited, though.
To begin with, entrepreneurial environments cannot be created out of thin air. Research has shown that entrepreneurship requires highly individualised character traits that run counter to the sociocentric cultures of most Pacific communities.
Evans remarks that where microenterprise efforts are supported, they need to be diversified and targeted to create sustainable market ecosystems rather than simply leading to the creation of ever-more canteens. He writes, ‘Cash-constrained urban youth selling to similarly cash-constrained urban youth will not yield significant, long-term returns.’
The proliferation of entrepreneurship programs and projects as a salve for economic and social concerns also speaks to broader debates about what role economic growth models have in envisioning Pacific developmental futures. Approaches that centre culture and imagine locally-relevant sustainable development have been put forward by Pacific thinkers for decades. The Vanuatu 2030 People’s Plan well articulates a vision of social, environmental and economic harmony.
The future of the Pacific is absolutely dependent on how it engages its youth populations, the opportunities available to young people and how they use them. In my opinion there is every likelihood that this future will be bright. Entrepreneurship may even play a part in achieving it.
Aidan Craney is a Lecturer in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University and development consultant. He tweets from @AidanSeamus
The Pacific Outlook series is an initiative of the Pacific Hub.