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Demanding the Future: Navigating the Pacific's Youth Bulge

With half the region's population aged under 23, the Pacific's 'youth bulge' will affect every area of development in the region in the coming decades

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Key Findings
  • High population growth is driving a rapid increase in the proportion of young people in Pacific Island countries, with half the region's population aged under 23. This 'youth bulge' is particularly acute in Melanesian states and will have a major impact on every area of development in the region in the coming decades.
  • Economic prosperity, political success and social stability in the Pacific Islands region in the future will depend on harnessing this demographic dividend and preventing youth marginalisation and disillusionment.
  • Urgent and coordinated national and regional responses should include addressing pressing health problems, expanding Australia's seasonal worker scheme, increasing migration pathways, and targeted skills and employment programs.

Executive summary

In the Pacific Islands region, high population growth has generated a corresponding increase in the number of young people: at least half the region's population is aged under 23.[1] Of all the challenges the region faces, this ‘youth bulge’ will be one of the most significant. It will affect employment, health outcomes, and sustainable urbanisation, as well as peace and security. The impact of COVID-19 will only exacerbate the predicament. The associated political and social pressures are likely to be particularly acute in the most populous Melanesian island states of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, and Fiji. How the demands and opportunities of the younger generation are addressed by national governments, regional governance, and development organisations between now and 2050, when the bulge is expected to peak, will determine the region’s trajectory this century. Future social stability, political success, and economic prosperity will depend on whether the young are treated as a boon — harnessed to drive economic growth, innovation, and leadership — or instead subjected to political and economic marginalisation and frustration.

Introduction: Population in the Pacific Islands

This century, our close neighbours, the 22 island states and territories scattered across the Pacific Ocean, face numerous challenges to their prosperity, security, and stability. Climate change, disaster resilience, sustainable fisheries, and the impacts of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) were only some of the concerns highlighted by leaders across the region at the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) summit in 2018.[2] In early 2020, at the time of writing, the full consequences of COVID-19 are yet to crystallise. The impact of border restrictions on Pacific economies, which are dependent on tourism, imports, commodity prices, and foreign labour, are already severe. Emergency measures and border controls introduced by Pacific Islands governments have been effective to date. However, if there is a resurgence of the virus that defeats those measures, pressures on health systems and institutions will only increase.

While the region possesses considerable wealth in natural resources, this has not translated into equitable development. Economic growth has been slow and uneven, and the rural‒urban drift is accelerating, while governance in highly populated areas is poor.

Amid these difficulties, the region’s population growth, currently projected to escalate from about 11.9 million to 19.7 million by 2050,[3] is poised to become the Pacific’s most critical challenge. While reliable statistics are scarce and census data is collected infrequently across the region, the evidence suggests that population growth is set to be the single greatest influence on every development sector in the Pacific Islands, from infrastructure and services capacity to outcomes in health, education, employment, economic development, peace, and security.

The consequential surge in the youth population — where the current median age is 22 across the region, and half the population is aged under 23[4] — will place an overwhelming fiscal and capacity burden on resource-constrained Pacific Island governments. This will compel a foreign policy response from the most developed nations on the Pacific Rim, in the interests of regional development and stability.[5]

The phenomenon is especially acute in the most populous states of Melanesia, where more than a third are aged 14 and under. PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu are recording population growth rates of 2 per cent or more, about double the global average annual growth rate of 1.1 per cent.[6] PNG’s present population of 8.7 million is forecast to increase to 15.1 million by 2050 and, in Solomon Islands the number of people is predicted to surge from 630 000 to 1.4 million by mid-century.[7]

School children in Elelo village, Western Province, Solomon Islands. Photograph by author.

This analysis identifies the wide-ranging potential impacts of a surging youth population in the first half of this century. They include increased poverty, persistently low literacy levels, and intense competition for educational opportunities. In addition, growing unemployment and accelerated rural‒urban drift is expected to lead to rising pressure on already under-resourced urban areas, an increase in chronic health problems, disillusionment with government, and higher risks of socioeconomic and political grievance. All of these add to a potent mix in a region that already struggles to achieve even modest improvements in people’s quality of life. The paper reviews the policy responses of Pacific governments, most of whom have acknowledged the issues and propose wide-ranging programs to address them. However, resourcing and the capacity of national governments to implement these programs remain the principal challenges for Pacific nations and their development partners.

What is causing the youth bulge?

There are a range of causes of the youth bulge phenomenon across the Pacific. These include high fertility rates, varying take-up of contraception, and the difficulty of delivering reproductive health services.

Adult and adolescent fertility rates are very high compared with global averages, although they are declining in some Melanesian countries. For example, the most recently recorded rate in PNG is 4.4 children per woman, and 65 births per 1000 girls aged 15–19. This rate is well above the global average of 2.4 children per woman, and 44 births per 1000 teenaged girls.[8]

 The momentum of natural population growth is also heavily influenced by low contraceptive prevalence, a strong tradition of large families, and the non-use of contraception by some Christian adherents. In addition, longer life expectancy and a general decline in infant and under-five mortality are contributing factors. Thus, while the fertility rate in PNG has declined since 1969,[9] the expected lifespan has risen in the same period, from 48 to 66.[10]

Progress in increasing the effectiveness of reproductive health services remains very slow. There are both logistical and cultural barriers to raising the uptake of family planning in Pacific Island countries. The contraceptive prevalence rate is only 27.3 per cent in Solomon Islands, 31.2 per cent in PNG, and 38.4 per cent in Vanuatu, still far below the average of 62 per cent in developing countries.[11]

The delivery of reproductive health services is also restricted in rural areas of Melanesia, which are home to more than 80 per cent of the population. Poor infrastructure, limited transport, and too few skilled healthcare workers all hamper women’s access to reproductive healthcare.[12] Yet, even when these services are available, families and communities can be reluctant to accept them, hindered by illiteracy, cultural and religious opposition, gender inequality, and entrenched social norms. Large extended families, particularly in rural communities, are still perceived as an important social safety net. Numerous offspring are seen as a way of taking care of the older generation and ensuring land and food gardens remain productive. However, this sentiment is not consistent across the region. In the nations and territories of Polynesia and Micronesia, where islands are smaller and populations mostly well below 200 000, the rollout of family planning services has been more successful.

In some Pacific nations, the pressures of expanding populations have been mitigated by easier avenues for international migration. These include the French overseas territory of New Caledonia; the US-affiliated territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa; and Cook Islands and Niue, which have strong historical links with New Zealand.

But in Melanesia, swelling youth populations will lead to an increasing vortex of social, economic, and political issues. And as rural inequalities spur on an influx of migration into urban centres, the greatest pressures will be felt in the areas of employment, education, public services, and social cohesion.

Such a demographic bias presents both opportunities and risks. An abundance of young people could drive social and human development, innovation, and economic growth, if education systems respond to the demand and if the energy, skills, and leadership potential of youth are leveraged. On the other hand, if young people become over-represented among the unemployed and disenfranchised, the odds of increased poverty, disaffection, social instability, and conflict are high.

Looking ahead, the next generation of leaders will inherit the threats to prosperity and peace that are evident in the southwest Pacific Islands, amplified even further under the strain of the coronavirus crisis. As PNG’s prime minister James Marape remarked in 2019:

In a country where population growth trends above economic growth or GDP, our annual budget provisions [continue] to be far less than actual need for development; it is now time to do things differently. Generational change demands change in modus operandi. Now is the time to embrace economic opportunity so that we can provide for all of our people, both today and for the generations to come. We have a responsibility to ensure that we invest in our future, so that our children, our children’s children and all those that come beyond have a strong foundation.[13]

Recent studies reveal that financial security, failure to complete education, and poverty are among the current issues troubling Pacific Islands’ youth.[14] While these are challenges that affect whole populations, their impact is exacerbated when borne increasingly by the young.

The future political and economic trajectory of our immediate Pacific region will ultimately depend on supporting the younger generations, not only in regard to economic participation, but also in their political and social aspirations. Australia is the Pacific’s leading development partner in terms of aid investment. From 2011 to 2017, it invested around $6.9 billion in donor projects, compared to the next largest international donors, New Zealand and China, who gave a combined $2.8 billion.[15] Australia’s role in assisting the Pacific nations to meet their challenges was reinforced in Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper and accelerated in the Australian government’s ‘Pacific Step-up’ in late 2018. As Foreign Minister Senator Marise Payne observed in 2019: “Australia has long been the Pacific’s largest development partner, security partner and friend in time of need. This is a solid foundation, but … we can and should all do more together to rise to the challenge and opportunities of our new Blue Pacific Continent.”[16]

Seizing the initiative and achieving the desired outcomes will require the implementation of effective national and regional policies and programs, sooner rather than later.

Youth bulges: Boon or burden?

A large increase in a nation’s young population — a ’youth bulge’— can be viewed as either an advantage or an obstacle.

The term ‘youth bulge’ has its origins in the work of German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn during the 1990s. Heinsohn hypothesised that a large population of young adults posed the risk of triggering social instability and, consequently, internal conflict or even civil war. Both the definition of ‘youth’, and the demarcation of ‘bulge’, vary in the literature, but youths are generally described as being aged from 15–24. A ‘youth bulge’ occurs when the proportion of the population within that age range exceeds 20 per cent.[17] Heinsohn’s theory was that large and growing numbers of young adults compete for limited employment opportunities, resulting in a frustrated youth cadre and a rising risk of social unrest and violence.[18]

Developing the theory further, social scientists such as Jack Goldstone argued that the phenomenon required more than merely large numbers of young people: “it is only in the presence of other conducive factors (e.g. fiscal crises, escalating inflation or food prices, weak or repressive governments) that ‘youth bulges’ add explosiveness to the social mix.”[19]

An alternative interpretation is that a population with a demographic bias towards youth will produce a ‘demographic dividend’, particularly in developing countries, if the greater numbers of working-age people are occupied in productive, remunerated, economic activities and the employment rate remains high.[20] Some analysts assess that the determinant of a nation’s success is the evolution of economic structure, specifically from one dominated by agriculture to one with larger manufacturing and service sectors that can absorb an expanding mass of job seekers. This evolution has occurred in some East Asian nations, such as Korea.[21]

Several countries in the Pacific have demographics that meet the definition of a ‘youth bulge’. In PNG — the most populous country in the region — the median age was 22 in 2016. Its population of 15‒24 year olds crossed the 20 per cent threshold in 2011, surpassing Vanuatu’s high of 19.5 per cent in 2009. Across the region, the demographic data is similar, and population growth rates remain almost double the global average. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of Pacific Youth 2017 Report noted that:

for countries to benefit from a demographic dividend, the enabling environment must be favourable to ensure that an increased supply of workers is gainfully employed … Key institutional frameworks for education, health, the economy, and governance must be in place to convert the growing labour force into a skilled and effective workforce.[22]

With low employment rates, weak governance, fiscal pressures, and high dependency on aid, Pacific Island nations, and Melanesian countries in particular, are among the most vulnerable to the negative consequences of the ‘youth bulge’ phenomenon.[23]

The education deficit

Pacific leaders and their citizens are well aware of the essential role of education in lifting human and economic development performance. Young people will be a boon to Pacific Island nations if they are prepared, early in life, with the skills and knowledge needed to perform active roles as leaders and drivers of social development and economic growth.

Pacific Island leaders have emphasised the imperative, too, of matching quality and relevant education curricula with the roles and opportunities available in employment, as well as the expertise needed by Small Developing Island States (SDIS). As pointed out at the PIF Education Ministers' meeting in 2018, “The need to understand and respond to the critical linkages between labour market/industry needs and appropriate training cannot be overemphasized, if students are to be provided with learning opportunities relevant to their future.”[24]

By 2015, the PIF reported that seven of the fourteen PIF states, including Fiji, had achieved Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 of universal primary education, while Solomon Islands and Vanuatu recorded mixed results, and PNG fell short.[25] A recent progress report on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) found that while the Pacific Islands region as a whole was making good progress on increasing the numbers of qualified teachers, it was not achieving sufficient progress on other goals. These included criteria such as all girls and boys completing free, equitable, and good quality primary and secondary education, and women and men having equal access to affordable technical, vocational, and tertiary education.[26]

Children at North Goroka Primary School, Eastern Highlands Province, PNG. Photograph by author.

Most countries in the region have prioritised their enabling policies, such as eliminating tuition fees, and making significant progress in boosting school enrolment. Net primary enrolment is close to complete in Fiji (99.6 per cent), 89 per cent in Solomon Islands, 86 per cent in PNG, and 78 per cent in Kiribati.[27] But the numbers of students beginning school are not matched by those completing it, with very few continuing on to secondary and tertiary levels.[28] For instance, a 2019 report by Plan International revealed that in Solomon Islands, up to 70 per cent of girls complete primary school, but only 7 per cent finish secondary education.[29] Barriers to completion include the often prohibitive costs of attending secondary school and university, and exam failure. Travel distances to secondary schools and universities, and poor road networks in remote and mountainous areas such as in the PNG highlands, mean access to higher levels of education is especially difficult for students in rural areas. For female pupils, inhibiting factors include gender violence and underage marriage. Tertiary education participation is also notably low throughout the region, ranging from about 15–17 per cent in Fiji, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, to 5–7 per cent in Samoa and Vanuatu.[30]

An overarching feature of the educational environment in the Pacific is the exceptionally low rates of literacy, particularly in Melanesia, even among young people who have attended school. In 2015, the regional Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA) showed that just under 50 per cent of surveyed students in Years 4 and 6 were sufficiently literate. By 2018, these results had improved slightly, with 53 per cent of Year 4 and 63 per cent of Year 6 achieving the required level.[31] Yet they remain significantly lower than the average literacy rate of 74 per cent for youths (15‒24 years) in the United Nations’ Least Developed Countries (LDC) category and, more specifically, the rate of 78 per cent in Island LDCs.[32] Other surveys have recorded even lower results, with adult literacy of 17.5 per cent reported in Isabel province in Solomon Islands, and 27.6 per cent in Vanuatu’s Shefa province.[33]

These figures are alarming. Regrettably, however, they are not news to regional leaders, education ministries, and international aid donors. It has long been known that better life outcomes for Pacific Islander youth rely on teachers being adequately trained, and in sufficient numbers, to meet regional population growth. In addition, there are myriad inadequacies in the education systems across the region, including meagre funding, ageing school infrastructure and facilities, lack of oversight by central ministries, teacher absenteeism, gender inequality, and lack of access for students with disabilities.[34]

A further complicating factor is the large proportion of rural students, who far outnumber their urban counterparts, particularly in Melanesia. Even where fee-free education is available, or subsidised as it now is in PNG,[35] parents who already incur additional costs for clothing and transport are often asked for regular payments towards special projects or building and facilities maintenance at schools.[36] For families with subsistence livelihoods, this can be an unsustainable financial burden. As a consequence, parents may decide to send only one or some of their children to school, or withdraw them from formal education before secondary level completion.

These challenges are even more pronounced for youth in the two post-conflict regions of Solomon Islands and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in PNG. During the decade-long Bougainville Civil War (1988–1998), many children were denied an education when local schools were destroyed and teachers fled. Some became child soldiers, and the majority witnessed violence. Here the risks of a ‘lost generation’ are acute. More than 18 years after the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement, the region’s population has doubled to an estimated 300 000. An estimated 40 per cent are aged under 15, while up to 60 per cent are categorised as ‘young people’ aged under 35.[37] Despite having better access to schools, completing an education still remains a serious challenge for many. A 2011 study by the Australian National University (ANU) reported that the probability of a student in Central Bougainville completing secondary school was 11 per cent, while another study of the ‘crisis generation’ estimated that 90 per cent of students will leave before the end of Grade 10 due to financial difficulties or exam failure.[38]

School girls play amid the ruins of the war-ravaged Panguna copper mine
in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, PNG. Photograph by author

In neighbouring Solomon Islands, the long path to recovery and reconstruction continues after the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) concluded in June 2017. But here, too, poverty, low levels of literacy, and high levels of unemployment disproportionately affect the younger generation, where 70 per cent of the population are under 30.[39]

Education and skills development are essential for equipping young Pacific Islanders with the capabilities not only to secure jobs, but also to drive entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth — the combination of which provides the development, public service, and governance expertise necessary for the region.

Where are the jobs?

Aside from low levels of education and literacy, even those who are educated are at high risk of joblessness. Most Pacific Island countries possess small, slow-growing economies, which are not creating enough jobs to keep pace with population growth. The formal sector is small, and the private sector is underdeveloped. After the COVID-19 crisis, the situation will worsen. While reliable data is scarce, youth unemployment has been estimated at about 23 per cent across the region, rising to 46 per cent in Solomon Islands, and 63 per cent in the Marshall Islands, compared with the global average of 13 per cent.[40]

Only one quarter to one third of school leavers in the region secure formal sector employment. The informal economy absorbs up to 85 per cent of the workforce in some Pacific Island countries.[41] This sector plays a key role in the economic survival of millions of islanders who live in hardship. Nevertheless, the International Labour Organization (ILO) points out that: “Under-employment and precarious informal working conditions of youth could be more serious problems than open unemployment.”[42] Widespread low wages, poor working conditions, and limited employment prospects are fertile breeding grounds for grievance. Societal expectations add to the pressures when wage earners — in both the formal and informal sector — are expected to provide for extended family and wantoks (close friends), creating the conditions for further social tensions.

There are a number of imperatives in addressing the economic deficit for the younger generation in the coming decades. These include aligning education curricula and courses with local employment needs so as to enable the private sector to flourish, and improving the security and prospects for those engaged in the informal sector.

Diversifying resource extractive-dependent economies is also a priority. The resource-rich Melanesian nation of PNG recorded high average economic growth of 6.3 per cent from 2009–2017, with peaks of 10.1 per cent in 2010 and 13.5 per cent in 2014. Solomon Islands also averaged 6.3 per cent growth from 2003–08. These economies, particularly PNG’s, have grown significantly since the middle of last decade. However, this period of sporadically high GDP growth, driven by extractive industries such as logging and natural gas, has failed to alleviate endemic poverty and low human development.[43] The growth in wealth was well in excess of global averages, but produced few material development gains. In 2015, the PIF Secretariat reported that neither Solomon Islands nor PNG had achieved any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).[44]

According to the World Bank, Pacific countries need to look beyond the jobs-poor extractive sector for long-term growth and employment. For example, the agriculture sector in PNG is:

a key earner of foreign currency and a primary employer for many of its citizens. The country’s fertile land makes the sector and its downstream processing and value-added spinoffs the most viable option for absorbing its growing workforce, while continuing to provide potential for the economy in the long term.[45]

Smallholder farming — cultivating fruit and vegetables for subsistence and market selling — is also a potential ‘sleeping giant’ as a source of employment.[46] Despite the well documented risks within the informal sector, it provides vital livelihoods and incomes for many Pacific Islanders. It is a particularly important means of financial support for women, with small-scale food production yielding a living for 65‒85 per cent of female Pacific Islanders.[47] The informal agrarian economy, which is linked to traditional land-based livelihoods, has “played a powerful role in maintaining a decent quality of life for most Pacific Islanders.”[48] Given the right political and legal support, it could significantly alleviate poverty and unemployment in the region. As one emerging Pacific leader urged: “Provide incentives for youth to engage in this sector. Reward proposals that are sustainable, practical and environmentally viable for the respective climate and terrain. But also, invest in the training of youth, at schools, around how to develop agri-businesses, understanding business models, [and] the importance of the agricultural sector.”[49]

Youth leader Patrick Arathe founded a farming enterprise in his early 20s
near the coastal town of Munda, Western Province, Solomon Islands. Photograph by author.

Targeted youth programs have been successful in the past, with examples including a project in the village of Kamanabe in PNG’s rural Eastern Highlands Province. A raskol gang with a reputation for carjacking, robbery, and extortion on the nearby Highlands Highway, transformed their lives by abandoning crime to explore the economic potential of honey production. The gang, renamed the Herave Youth Group, became productive and respected members of their community.[50] Another initiative in the coastal community of Munda in the Western Province of Solomon Islands, saw school-leaver Patrick Arathe lead a group of 16 young homeless boys in a farming enterprise venture. Arathe’s farm grew to become the largest agricultural operation in the area, supplying quality fresh produce to the local hospital, businesses, and community. The economic success of the project financed the members’ food, clothing, household needs, and continuing education.[51]

These small success stories suggest that Pacific youth, like young people everywhere, can seize the initiative to improve their own lives. A 2016 evaluation of youth employment programs conducted in Honiara concluded: “an entrepreneurial or capital-centric approach should take priority over formal employment programs.” It found that there is a potentially high rate of success for new businesses if emerging entrepreneurs are provided with relevant skills and access to capital in order to sustain their initial startups.[52]

But galvanising these sectors, encouraging more entrepreneurial activity by younger participants, and enabling the full potential of informal industries, requires major infrastructure investment in electricity, telecommunications, and road and transport networks. It also relies on improved governance, law and order, land management, and economic and logistical integration with the rest of the region. Of course, these are not specific remedies for youth employment problems, and many have been in the sights of these countries and their development partners since decolonisation, but the urgency to address these systemic issues is increasing.

Urban drift: Bright lights, disappointed dreams

Pacific towns and cities are magnets for young people struggling to secure paid employment, or those looking for wider social opportunities than in rural areas. But while the urban populations in Melanesian island countries are growing rapidly, the expansion in infrastructure, services, and jobs to meet this growth falls far short. The potential risk for social instability associated with this ‘urban drift’ to densely populated areas is that it creates a large cohort of young Pacific Islanders confronted with economic frustration and disappointed dreams.

While towns and cities in the Pacific Islands have developed since the mid-twentieth century, the trend of permanent long-term migration from rural areas to urban centres is a relatively recent phenomenon, notably since the 1970s.[53] As newly independent nation states in the region embarked on modernisation, towns increasingly became synonymous with new opportunities. Over this 40-year period, the urban areas of the Pacific Islands grew exponentially, from fewer than 850 000 people, to an estimated 2.03 million in 2011.[54] The main driver is the desire for better paid employment and access to secondary and higher levels of education, as well as medical and hospital facilities. However, urban areas have grown in haphazard and idiosyncratic ways, with the rate exceeding the capacity and resources of institutions tasked with urban governance. In response to inadequate urban planning and housing, informal settlements have mushroomed in urban areas throughout Melanesia. In Port Moresby, it is estimated that at least 40 per cent of residents live in 79 of the city’s informal or squatter settlements.[55]

While the trend is not uniform across the region, urban growth in Melanesian countries is now well in excess of national population growth. For instance, according to the most recent censuses, Fiji has a population growth rate of 0.8 per cent, but an urban growth rate of 1.5 per cent. Solomon Islands and Vanuatu record urban populations expanding at 4.7 per cent and 3.5 per cent, compared with overall population growth of 2.8 per cent and 2.5 per cent respectively.[56] The socioeconomic and environmental consequences of this trend include rapid growth of crowded informal or squatter settlements, which extend beyond official town limits into customary land[57] and peri-urban areas. This creates parallel issues, such as shortages of decent housing, environmental degradation due to unmanaged urban development, and public health problems related to poor water quality, sanitation, and waste disposal services.[58]

The momentum and associated pressures of urban drift are intensified by the wave of young people seeking educational opportunities, enticed by the excitement of popular culture and globalised consumer lifestyles. An estimated 48 per cent of people living in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, were aged 15‒29 in 2015.[59]

This largely uncontrolled development has intensified poverty due to sub-standard living conditions and the inability of urban economies to grow fast enough to meet the overwhelming demands for employment. For example, the poverty rate in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara, is 15 per cent — higher than the national average of 12.7 per cent.[60]

Urban drift is therefore driving the ’urbanisation of poverty‘, according to the Asian Development Bank, with unplanned urban settlements in the Pacific marked by inequality of income and assets, community overcrowding, substandard housing, social exclusion, and high unemployment.[61] The informality of the land use constrains governments in providing basic services. [62] These factors can be catalysts for urban crime, violence, and personal insecurity, all of which are present in varying degrees in the cities of Port Moresby, Port Vila, and Honiara.[63] Investigations into the 2006 urban riots in Honiara identified contributing factors that included urban poverty, male unemployment, and economic and political grievances.[64] The potential for urban conflict is also connected to disputes over contested land tenure, land use, and forced residential evictions as settlements traverse town boundaries into customary land. In addition, landless settlers are evicted by developers to make way for construction projects, as happened in the Paga Hill settlement in Port Moresby.[65]

Some migrants do find success in urban areas, furthering their educations or finding better jobs. There is evidence that those who secure employment contribute to financially supporting extended families and their rural communities.[66] However, there are also high risks for youths, especially those with limited education, whose dreams often fail to materialise. Tuiloma Neroni Slade, former Secretary General of the PIF Secretariat, warned in 2012 that:

The urban environment offers possibilities that attract young people over any other group. These include opportunities for artistic expression, forging of new identities, better access to technology, wider social networks and new forms of entertainment. At the same time, the combination of elevated school dropout rates, unemployment and the absence of stabilising traditional social support structures render many young people vulnerable to destructive influences.[67]

Many young Pacific Islanders work on the informal economy: these young women sell fresh flowers at the main market in Honiara,
capital of the Solomon Islands. Photograph by author.

A 2014 survey of urban youth in PNG revealed that 68 per cent were unemployed and, of those who were employed, 86 per cent were engaged in the informal economy.[68]

The potential fallout is that increasing levels of frustration and resentment among marginalised urban youth can make them highly vulnerable to alcohol and substance abuse, crime, unsafe sexual behavior, and mental illness such as depression and anxiety.

Young urban men, notably in the larger cities of PNG, have been prone to the lure of ‘raskol gangs’, or local criminal bands that became synonymous in the 1980s and 1990s with crimes such as burglary, car-jacking, vandalism, and assault, including violence against women. Gang culture continues to appeal to young men as a means of gaining social status, demonstrating clan loyalty, finding camaraderie, and exercising power and control in the community. In urban settings, gang problems are particularly potent, with young unemployed males drawn more readily into forms of clan-based urban warfare, for example, over land and social grievances.[69]

Urban drift has other damaging implications. High levels of poverty and hardship in urban settlements put children, from as young as five years, at risk of child labour and sexual exploitation in large cities such as Port Moresby.[70] The rising costs of city living and low household wages push vulnerable children out of education and into work such as selling low-cost goods on the street or working in urban brothels, to contribute to their family’s survival.[71]

Urban development is an ongoing challenge for Pacific Island governments. As pointed out in a 2018 report on PNG: “institutional shortcomings are conspicuously evident in the failure of formal state institutions to provide municipal infrastructure and services, and to plan for and regulate commercial activities to offer opportunities for the youth, underemployed, and swelling numbers of new arrivals.”[72] The PNG and Solomon Islands governments have outlined strategies to upgrade settlements, which include increasing land tenure security and improving essential services for inhabitants. However, addressing urban poverty, unemployment, and affordable housing is dependent on improved political will and action, governance, policies, and resources, as well as finding solutions to the deficit of accessible land. A major challenge is negotiating durable and acceptable ways of releasing traditionally owned land into the public domain and providing certainty for those investing in the sustainable development of Pacific towns and cities.[73]

Striving for healthy islands

As the youth population surges in the Pacific, issues such as poverty, substance abuse, and other lifestyle challenges will place enormous stresses on already under-resourced health systems. Health experts predict an avalanche of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer as the ‘youth bulge’ in Melanesian countries progresses to its peak mid-century.[74]

Children and youth in the Pacific Islands today face a wide spectrum of health risks, ranging from communicable diseases, such as malaria, to those associated with poverty, including tuberculosis, adolescent pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections. But recent studies suggest that the three priority health issues for the younger generation in the coming decades are substance abuse, mental illness, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially diabetes.[75]

Arguably NCDs are likely to pose the most devastating effect on the wellbeing and productivity of Pacific Island nations and their peoples. Eight years ago, Pacific Island health ministers issued a stark warning:

While adult NCD rates continue to rise, the next generation — more overweight and less active than any other Pacific generation in history — is the tsunami of the future. High childhood obesity rates in the Pacific, if left unchecked, suggest that a true health catastrophe is just a generation away.[76]

The most critical risk factors, namely tobacco addiction, unhealthy diets, alcohol abuse, and lack of physical exercise, have increased across the Pacific since the 1970s.[77] A major catalyst has been the influence of imported diets and lifestyles, so that the traditional food intake of predominantly root vegetables and fresh fish has been supplanted by packaged and processed foods, ranging from biscuits and noodles to carbohydrate drinks. And urbanisation has diminished the level of physical activity and access to land for food gardens that many islanders are accustomed to in their rural villages. Climate change, along with its associated high temperatures, droughts and floods, is also affecting crop diversity and natural food security.[78]

Rising levels of obesity cause increased incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, already two of the leading causes of death in the Pacific Islands. Thirty-five per cent of the 463 million adults aged 20‒79 with diabetes worldwide live in the Western Pacific region.[79] Many of these will develop neuropathy, visual impairment, or require amputations.[80]

In the southwest Pacific Islands, where there is a higher incidence of poverty, the scenario is complicated by the ‘double burden’ of over-nutrition in adults and malnutrition in children. Around 50 per cent of under five-year-olds in PNG suffer stunted growth, exacerbated by inadequate nutritious food consumption and poor breastfeeding.[81]

For adolescents and young adults of the Pacific, substance abuse, especially of alcohol and marijuana, has been increasingly linked with unemployment and social marginalisation.[82] Young Pacific people are also experiencing mental health issues from a range of psychological stresses, such as prolonged unemployment, bullying, domestic violence, societal expectations, and rapid social change. In the post-conflict regions of the Solomon Islands and Autonomous Region of Bougainville, youths endured years of violent armed conflict as children, and are vulnerable to ongoing untreated post-conflict trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. These are factors that may have contributed to a higher-than-average youth suicide rate in the Pacific Islands.[83]

Locals from Arawa, Autonomous Region of Bougainville, PNG, wait to receive care
on the hospital ship USNS Mercy during Pacific Partnership 2015. Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

The debilitating impact of untreated mental illness on physical health and productivity is a major emerging health issue in the region. The disability-related burden of mental and substance abuse disorders in the 20–54 age group in the Pacific Islands has been predicted to increase by 74 per cent between 2010 and 2050.[84]

Pacific Island leaders are well aware that as the ‘youth bulge’ ages, the human and economic cost of these health issues could reach unsustainable levels. In 1995, the PIF launched the ‘Healthy Islands’ strategy, which outlined a comprehensive integrated approach to tackling NCDs, the continuing risks of infectious diseases, and building health services to cope. However, serious shortfalls in government finances and skilled workforces continue to impede full and effective implementation of that strategy.[85] Pacific Island governments are giving priority to health expenditure and the treatment of NCDs, but these small island economies face an uphill battle to meet the growing cost burden. In Vanuatu, for example, a newly diagnosed Type 2 diabetes case in 2012 cost the government US$347 per year, 2.2 times the total expenditure per person on health in 2010. When the disease progresses to the point of requiring insulin treatment, the cost doubles to US$831 per patient per year.[86]

The state of the healthcare workforce — in terms of capability and conditions — jeopardises improved health targets. The below-capacity workforce is hindered by limited access to education and training, poor public sector working conditions, and limited infrastructure capacity. About 35 per cent of PNG’s 8.6 million people do not have the services of a doctor in their district.[87] Despite increased health funding, health services in rural areas of the country have significantly deteriorated.[88] Visits from doctors in rural health clinics have fallen, as has the availability of basic medicines. Only 40 per cent of clinics had access to electricity in 2012.[89]

In Solomon Islands, a sprawling archipelago of more than 900 islands, the workforce is concentrated in the capital, Honiara, leaving rural provinces, where 87 per cent of the population lives, with impoverished services. At the time of the 2016 National Health Strategic Plan, 30 per cent of the country’s total health personnel were based at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara, including 73 of 86 practising doctors in the country.[90]

The deficit of health services in rural areas of Melanesian countries will pose a substantial barrier to addressing the mounting burden of NCDs and diseases associated with poverty, as well as poor child health and under-nutrition. These issues are exacerbated by the logistic and geographic challenges of delivering health services in mountainous or remote island areas, where fertility rates and population growth are higher. These already significant challenges are likely to be intensified by the impact of climate change on food and water security.

Political fray: Disillusionment with government

Pacific Islands youth are the Pacific Islands leaders of tomorrow. But their path to political participation and economic empowerment is hindered by systemic dysfunction in Pacific politics, as well as by traditional cultural and social systems.

The younger generation of Pacific Islanders are more connected with their counterparts globally, and like young people in the Middle East and Africa, they are demanding a greater say in shaping their nations’ futures. Yet they remain constrained in their participation in political affairs and public life, a situation that defies trends in social media activism and rhetoric about youth involvement in politics.

Cultural norms commonly prescribe that young Pacific Islanders should listen to and obey the wisdom of elders, who dominate a strict social hierarchy in families and communities. While respect for the older generation remains important, many young adults believe there are too few avenues, apart from their right to vote, for being heard on political issues of the day.[91] Young women in particular have little or no representation in most national parliaments. At the end of 2019, only 47 of the total 560 members of parliament in Pacific Island national legislatures were women, and there were no female parliamentarians in PNG.[92]

However, advances in information and communications technology, the proliferation of mobile phones, and access to the internet and social media are presenting young Pacific Islanders, particularly those in urban contexts, with the possibility of new lifestyles, identities, and allegiances beyond the clan and community. The ways young people conceive social roles and relationships, and how they view and respond to the authority of traditional leaders, are in flux.

Growing numbers of young people in the region are turning to the internet to voice opinion and grievances on socioeconomic and political issues affecting their lives. In Fiji, where telecommunications access is high relative to the rest of the region, some estimates report that more than half of the country’s population is active on social media. In particular, Facebook is often regarded as an alternative to mainstream media.[93] Social media in the region is “increasingly playing an important role in how citizens become aware of information, how citizens engage in the political process, and even to some extent how governments feel accountable to the public”.[94] In some cases, governments have responded to this trend by considering methods of online censorship in a bid to control dissent.[95]

PNG social media sites, such as Papua New Guinea Mine Watch and Act Now!, provide a platform for youth speaking out against corruption, inequality, and development. For example, the Act Now! community advocacy organisation has collaborated with a youth group of several thousand members on protests such as ‘No to Seabed Mining’.[96] Similar youth organisations in Solomon Islands and Fiji use social media to extend the reach of their messages on public issues.[97]

Driving this youth activism is the phenomenon of patronage politics and corruption in the Pacific Islands. The mismanagement of public funds, as in PNG, and the bribery and nepotism associated with the wantok clan social structure, have contributed to the retarded development of infrastructure and public services. These issues have also undermined the access to economic and employment opportunities that young people would have in a properly functioning meritocracy. Corruption, political influence, and interference in the wantok system are all perceived as threats to good governance in PNG, according to a 2018 survey of bureaucrats. Seventy per cent of participants claimed that their relatives asked for favours related to work, including help with obtaining employment through personal influence.[98] This leaves young Pacific Islanders feeling disadvantaged. Zibie Wari, a former teacher and founder of the Tropical Gems youth group commented: “The [political] leaders are very busy [engaging] in corruption, while the future leaders of this country are left to fend for themselves. Many of these young people have been pushed out by the system.”[99]

Investigations into corruption in the logging industry in Solomon Islands, for example, reveal an unhealthy alliance between political elites and foreign extractive companies. Those relationships have served the interests of a few, while accelerating the loss of both forests and government revenues otherwise needed for development. According to Transparency International’s Solomon Islands office: “the links between politicians and foreign logging companies are complex and well entrenched … TSI regularly hears stories of politicians using their power to protect loggers, influencing police and giving tax exemptions to foreign businesses; in return loggers fund politicians.”[100]

Logging on Island of Makira, Solomon Islands. Image: Flickr/Tony Morris

Not only have the extractive industries failed to produce long-term or mass employment, the public funds they generated have often been maladministered, misappropriated, or misplaced. Corruption, according to one estimate, led to the loss of half the PNG government’s development budget of 7.6 billion kina (US$2.8 billion) in 2009–11, and continues to cost PNG 1.5 billion kina each year.[101] Last year, the Auditor General of Solomon Islands reported that the discrepancy over taxation in government records in 2015 totalled more than SBD$1 billion.[102]

Corruption has also extended into the education system, affecting the lives of young Pacific Island students. In a region where the cost of tertiary education is out of reach of many low-income families, scholarships are a crucial opportunity, and the demand for them will only increase with a growing youth population.[103] Yet, some of the highest-achieving students are missing out on these opportunities due to external political interference in the awarding of tertiary scholarships. In Solomon Islands, for example, government ministers have used their discretionary powers to manipulate the scholarship approval process to reward family and associates.[104] This type of fraud can have a range of effects on the young population, from loss of trust in the government and the political process, to mental health issues.[105]

Corruption in government can also lead younger generations to more than a sense of disillusionment, with the recent history of political and social unrest and armed conflict in the Pacific Islands being a barometer of their frustrations. Unemployed and disaffected young males were highly represented in riots against the political status quo in Tonga and Solomon Islands in 2006.[106]

Marginalised youth also played a role in the Bougainville Civil War (1988–1998) and the Solomon Islands conflict known as ‘the tensions’ (1998–2003). In the years leading up to the Bougainville conflict, an estimated 70 per cent of the population of 150,000 people were under the age of 26, and more than 80 per cent of those aged 12 to 25 had no education beyond primary school. While the trigger of the Bougainville crisis was conflict over the Panguna mine and unequal distribution of mine profits, the grievances of marginalised young Bougainvilleans were a significant factor.[107] Similarly, high youth unemployment in Solomon Islands was incendiary when combined with poverty, ethnic divisions, elite capture of state resources, and low rural development — problems that remain largely unresolved today.[108] Young Solomon Islanders believe their country’s leaders have failed to address critical issues, such as poor governance, widespread corruption, and continuing struggles over equal resource distribution.[109]

Unrest in Honiara in 2019, reportedly triggered by public anger over the prime ministerial election in April and the influence of powerful logging interests, is a reminder that poor governance remains an inflammatory issue for the younger generation.[110]

However, some progress has been made. There are a number of initiatives aimed at empowering disenfranchised youth in the region, such as National Youth Parliaments in Fiji and Solomon Islands, and similar bodies in PNG and Samoa. In PNG’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville, youth committees have been set up at the district level to inform the Bougainville government on issues of importance to young people. In 2018, the Vanuatu government passed a National Youth Authority Bill to provide an avenue for young islanders to directly influence government decision-making.[111]

These initiatives are a start, although their effectiveness is yet to be determined.[112] But the situation of Pacific Islands youth, including their disaffection and grievances, can only be improved if national governments become serious about addressing the deep-rooted problems of governance and low development outcomes in Melanesian island states.

Policy responses and conclusion

This paper has outlined the wide-ranging and long-term consequences of high population growth in the Pacific Islands and the resulting bulge in the youth population, especially in the Melanesian island states of the southwest Pacific, which is forecast to peak by mid-century.

The capacity of young Pacific Islanders to reach their full social, economic, and political potential in the coming decades is reliant on two factors. The first is their receiving a good quality education. The second is the effective prevention and treatment of some of the most debilitating health risks that threaten to undermine the working lives of Pacific youth and their prospects in later adulthood. These include attention to NCDs, such as coronary and respiratory diseases and diabetes, as well as substance abuse and mental illness.

The slow progress of development in rural regions of Melanesian countries such as PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, including the lack of infrastructure, public services, and job opportunities, continues to drive urban drift. But young migrants seeking more lucrative prospects and better lives in urban centres will end up frustrated and disappointed if governments, urban planners, and developers are unable to meet the huge economic and social demands of rapidly escalating urban populations. The mostly uncontrolled expansion of informal settlements in Melanesian capitals, such as Port Moresby, Honiara, and Port Vila, threatens to further raise levels of urban poverty and disadvantage, increasing the likelihood of socioeconomic and political grievances in young urban residents.

‘Youth bulge’ theories of the 1990s identified the heightened potential for civil unrest posed by large youth populations, particularly young males experiencing economic idleness, social disadvantage, and marginalisation by corruption or political repression. One strategy to address these issues is to provide youth with a sense of empowerment through greater political participation, and avenues to express their frustrations about socioeconomic and political matters. There are obstacles to this approach, including the entrenched roles of youth within traditional Pacific social hierarchies, as well as the detrimental impacts of corruption on meritocratic processes.

Young Pacific Islanders are not without energy and initiative, however. In the political arena, the younger generation are increasingly vocal and active in national and regional anti-corruption initiatives. At the grassroots level, young adults have demonstrated their will and capacity to overcome disadvantage.

The scale and breadth of the challenges facing Pacific Islands youth are acknowledged by local and national leaders across the region, and supported by strategic plans, development frameworks, and policies. At the regional level, this is evident in the Pacific Plan, originally conceived by the PIF Secretariat in 2005, and its Pacific Youth Development Framework 2014–2023, which makes the case for “a sustainable Pacific where all young people are safe, respected, empowered and resilient”.[113] It outlines a consensus on how Pacific Island states should integrate youth development into national policies and programs, and advocates for investment in a cross-cutting multi-sectoral approach. The framework further identifies those most vulnerable to marginalisation, such as the uneducated, unemployed, young women affected by gender inequality, and youth living in rural areas. The core priorities “careful targeting of labour and employment strategies to reach marginalised youth, greater use of preventive health strategies, addressing gender discrimination and a greater engagement of young people”.[114] The Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Youth At Work program aims to address youth unemployment and the absence of experience on the part of young applicants by helping them to gain internships leading to remunerated jobs or to start their own businesses.

These objectives are echoed in many national youth policies and reports. For instance, PNG’s overarching development policy, ‘Vision 2050’, outlines seven main focus areas, including human capital development, gender and youth, and people empowerment. It further identifies that “the development of special youth programs, such as education, vocational training, community development programs, and economic empowerment, should be considered as mission critical”.[115] The PNG government has also established the National Youth Development Authority (NYDA) to forge partnerships and collaboration on youth development with stakeholders throughout the country, including NGOs, churches, and donors.

The Solomon Islands National Youth Policy 2017‒2030 prioritises the educational and economic empowerment of youth, improving their health and wellbeing, boosting their contributions to sustainable development, and making them agents of political change and leadership in the country. The government states that “the shaping of young people into active and productive citizens is critical to achieving a ‘demographic dividend’, which refers to ‘a rise in the rate of economic growth due to a rising share of working age people in a population’”.[116] At the same time, it acknowledges the challenges to the success of youth policies, including ineffective implementation of policies, inconsistent prioritisation of policies by successive governments, low levels of budget allocation, and poor coordination of policies and programs at national and provincial levels.

Young boys in Siai Village, Oro Province, PNG. Photograph by author.

Elsewhere in the southwest Pacific, the Vanuatu National Youth Council aims to elevate the voice of youth in issues of political and social development. The Fiji government has recently engaged in extensive consultations with young people throughout the country in preparation for revising its national youth policy.[117]

Despite all these governmental responses, progress has been slow, if not negligible. The obvious barriers are lack of funding, limited expertise, insufficient manpower, and inadequate resources to effectively implement youth development plans on the necessary scale. And there remains the shortfall of employment opportunities amid the slow growth of Pacific Island economies. It is possible the COVID-19 crisis will bring even that slow growth to a grinding halt.

The Australian aid program administered by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is the principal development partner for the Pacific Islands. Among its many projects, it invests in the improvement of education and literacy in Pacific Island states and aids the provision of tertiary scholarships in the region. For 2019, the Australian government granted 312 Australian Awards scholarships to students in Pacific Island countries and 440 scholarships to PNG applicants, with about half the recipients being female.[118]

An important response to labour shortages in Australia, and geographic constraints to economic growth in Pacific Island countries, has been Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme, which commenced in July 2018. This enables people aged 21–45 from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu to be contracted for up to three years in low- and semi-skilled jobs in Australia, in sectors such as food and accommodation services, healthcare, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. From July 2019 to February 2020, the number of island workers registered in the scheme grew from 207 to 855, with the majority originating from Polynesian countries.[119]

The scheme is a welcome extension of the original Seasonal Worker Program that commenced in 2012, with the new project uncapped in relation to the numbers of applicants accepted each year. Both programs have provided a release valve for the expanding Pacific youth population hungry for well-paid work and the opportunity to gain skills and experience. The circular nature of temporary labour migration enhances the skilled labour workforces and human capital formation in the participating Pacific Island countries, and contributes to family and community incomes through workers’ remittances and savings. On the negative side, labour migration can lead to adverse social impacts, such as weakened social and family cohesion, and is a possible factor in alcoholism and domestic violence in returning workers.[120] It can also lead to ‘brain drain’ — the loss of valuable skilled workers — which is a risk for smaller countries, although the scheme’s focus on low-skilled employment diminishes that risk.53

The schemes have well-documented shortcomings. They are, as yet, modest. Migration pathways for Pacific Islanders to Australia have not become clearer, and family separation and ‘brain drain’ are issues. Recent government moves to allow visas for backpackers to undertake temporary agricultural work, with far fewer employer obligations, risk devaluing the Pacific scheme.[121] The seasonal labour schemes rely on effective action by the governments that send their citizens. Paradoxically, greater proportions of participants have come from the smaller Pacific countries, while those such as PNG and Solomon Islands with weaker governance systems have sent only small numbers, despite having the greatest needs. As pointed out by development expert Stephen Howes, “we have designed schemes that are vulnerable to being used least where they are needed most”.[122] 

The economic potential of the schemes is substantial, however. Furthermore they will be even more crucial after the economic ravages of the coronavirus. Recent analysis by the World Bank argued that “increasing labour mobility is critical for the future of the Pacific”.[123] If countries such as Australia and New Zealand were to open new visa categories for Pacific Islanders, these would offer a legitimate route to better employment, training, and incomes, particularly for unskilled and inexperienced young islanders who may not have access to those opportunities in their home countries. By 2040, an increase of 120 000 migrants under a medium-growth migration scenario could generate Pacific Island incomes worth US$5–10 billion over the period.[124]

But while the Pacific Labour Scheme can make an important contribution to improving the economic prospects in the region, it can only be part of the solution to the region’s ‘youth bulge’. The scheme cannot address non-employment related issues facing youth in the region, such as health and cultural stresses, political participation, and the effects of corruption and poor governance. The numbers alone speak of the magnitude of the challenge. If the population of the Pacific Islands reaches 18 million by 2050, then a projected increase of 120 000 Pacific labour migrants represents only 1.5 per cent of the region’s estimated 8 million working-age citizens.

This all points to the need for a far greater effort from Australia and its development partners to address the deep-seated problems experienced by our neighbours. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, an obvious part of the solution was to expand the migration pathways that are currently so limited for Pacific Island peoples.[125] After 2020, this and an expanded seasonal worker scheme will be crucial. More effort should be directed to targeted skills programs to provide employment opportunities in agriculture. High priority must also be given to infrastructure development to improve the situation in urban settlements, along with urgent attention paid to youth health, and extra support provided to address pervasive corruption in government.

Ultimately, each of these measures is needed to ensure that the Pacific’s ‘youth bulge’ produces a demographic dividend, and not a regional crisis.

About the author

Catherine Wilson is an independent writer and correspondent who has reported for the past decade on current affairs, global issues, politics, post-conflict, and international development in the Pacific Islands region for international print media. Her news and feature stories are regularly published by Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reuters, World Politics Review, Al Jazeera, Mongabay, (IPS) Inter Press Service, and newspapers in the region, including The Saturday Paper and The New Zealand Herald. She contributes analysis on the Pacific to the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter.


Cover image: Rural youth, Kindu, near Munda, Western Province. Photograph by author.

[1] Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Population Poster, 2016,; and Pacific Island Populations: Estimates and Projections of Demographic Indicators for Selected Years, updated June 2016, formerly accessed at

[2] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Forty-Ninth Pacific Islands Forum Communiqué, Nauru, 3–6 September 2018,

[4] Pacific Islands Population Poster, 2016. As a comparison, the median age in Australia is currently 37 years (30 June 2019),,

[5] Pacific Community, “Creating Opportunities for Youth Development”, 25 July 2017,

[6] United Nations Population Fund, World Population Dashboard,

[7] World Population Review, 2019 World Population by Country,

[8] Latest available data: United Nations Population Fund, Population and Development Profiles: Pacific Island Countries, April 2014,

[9] Declined from 6.2 in 1969 to 4.4 in 2006. See United Nations Population Fund, ibid, 6.

[10] United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 2019: Unfinished Business, 2019, 167,,

[11] United Nations Population Fund, Population and Development Profiles: Pacific Island Countries, April 2014,

[12] United Nations Development Program, Papua New Guinea,; United Nations Development Program, Solomon Islands,

[13] Hon James Marape, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, “A New Book for Papua New Guinea”, Address to the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, 25 July 2019,

[14] Aidan Craney, “Avoiding a Lost Generation: Understanding the Social and Economic Impacts of the Pasifika Youth Bulge”, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, 24 October 2016,; also, United Nations Development Program, Solomon Islands Youth Status Report 2018, 2018,; and Cameron Noble, Natalia Pereira and Nanise Saure, Urban Youth in the Pacific: Increasing Resilience and Reducing Risk for Involvement in Crime and Violence, (Suva: United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Pacific Centre, 2011),

[15] Stephen Dziedzic, “Which Country Gives the Most Aid to Pacific Island Nations? The Answer Might Surprise You”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 9 August 2018,

[16] Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, November 2017, v,; remarks by Marise Payne at DFAT Innovation Exchange, 22 July 2019,

[17] Helen Lee and Aidan Craney, “Pacific Youth, Local and Global”, in Pacific Youth: Local and Global Futures, ed Helen Lee (Canberra: ANU Press, 2019), 4.

[18] Lionel Beehner, “The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts”, Council on Foreign Relations, 13 April 2007,; Clark Whelton, “A Demographic Theory of War”, Washington Examiner, 4 October 2007,

[19] Jack A. Goldstone, “Youth Bulges and the Social Conditions of Rebellion”, World Politics Review, 20 November 2012,; and Henrik Urdal, “The Devil in the Demographics: The Effect of Youth Bulges on Domestic Armed Conflict, 1950-2000”, Social Development Papers: Conflict Prevention & Reconstruction, The World Bank, Paper No 14, July (2004),

[20] See the arguments in Lee and Craney, Pacific Youth, 4.

[21] Justin Yifu Lin, “Youth Bulge: A Demographic Dividend or a Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries?”, World Bank Blogs, 5 January 2012,

[22] David Clarke and Peter Azzopardi, State of Pacific Youth 2017, United Nations Population Fund (Fiji: UNFPA, 2019),, 8.

[23] See for example, Stewart Firth, Instability in the Pacific Islands: A Status Report, Lowy Institute Analysis, 4 June 2018,

[25] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2015 Pacific Regional MDGs Tracking Report, (Suva: PIFS, 2015),

[26] SDGs 4.1 and 4.3: Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2018 Pacific SDGs Progress Wheels, 2018,

[27] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2015 Pacific Regional MDGs Tracking Report, (Suva: PIFS, 2015),

[28] For example, net enrolment rates in primary and secondary education in Vanuatu were 86.2 percent and 34.9 percent respectively in 2015: Vanuatu Ministry of Education and Training, 2015 Annual Statistical Digest, September 2015, 15,

[29] Plan International, Our Education Our Future, (Melbourne: Plan Australia, 2019),, 8; and Alana Schetzer, “Australia Urged to Commit to Girls’ Education in the Solomons as Report Reveals High Dropout Rate”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 4 June 2019,

[30] International Labour Organization, Youth Employment Policy Brief: Pacific Island Countries, (Bangkok: ILO, 2013), 

[31] Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment 2018 Regional Report (PILNA), Educational Quality Assessment Program (EQAP), Suva, Fiji, 2019,

[32]United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), The Least Developed Countries Report 2018,; for the definition of LDCs, see

[33] Pacific Community, 2015 Pacific Islands Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (PILNA), Educational Quality Assessment Program (EQAP), Suva, Fiji, 2016, 34 (report no longer available online); and Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE), Education Experience Survey and Literacy Assessment: Rennell and Isabel Provinces (Solomon Islands), Canberra, Australia, 2011, viii; ASPBAE, Education Experience Survey and Literacy Assessment: Shefa Province (Vanuatu), Canberra, Australia, 2011,, vii.

[34] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Pacific Education for All 2015 Review, Apia Office, Samoa, 2015,; and “Education Issues in Asia and the Pacific”, Asian Development Bank,

[35] Pangu Pati 2020 and beyond, "Papua New Guinea 2020 School Fee Notice", PNG News Important News Headlines,, 12 January 2020,

[36] See also: Save the Children, Solomon Islands Non-Government Organisations’ Alternative Report on the Combined Second and Third Periodic Reports of Solomon Islands to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, (Melbourne: Save the Children 2017), par 85,

[37] Sylver Yagi, ‘’40 Youths in Mock Parliament Training”, Loop PNG, 10 March 2016,; and Annmaree O’Keeffe, “Bougainville’s Predicament, Independence or Not”, The Interpreter, 9 October 2019,

[38] Satish Chand, “Building Peace in Bougainville: Measuring Recovery Post-Conflict”, SSGM Discussion Paper 2013/5, Australian National University, 2015, 12,; and Jon Barnett and Stuart Kent, “Localising Peace: The Young Men of Bougainville’s ‘Crisis Generation’”, Political Geography, January 2012, 39,'s_'Crisis_generation'.

[39] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Solomon Islands Youth Status Report 2018,

[40] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), The State of Human Development in the Pacific: A Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a Time of Rapid Change, (Suva: UNDP Pacific Centre, 2014), 66,

[41] Ibid, 65; and International Labour Organization, A Study on the Future of Work in the Pacific, May 2017, 4,

[42] International Labour Organisation, Youth Employment Policy Brief: Pacific Island Countries, (Bangkok: ILO, 2013),

[44] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, 2015 Pacific Regional MDGs Tracking Report, (Suva: PIFS, 2015),

[45] Oxford Business Group, “Agriculture Keeps Expanding in PNG”, The Report: Papua New Guinea 2015, 180,

[46] Busa Jeremiah Wenogo, “As Election Looms, PNG Political Parties Should Consider Supporting Informal Economy”, Devpolicy Blog, 17 May 2017,

[47] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), The State of Human Development in the Pacific: A Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a Time of Rapid Change, (Suva: UNDP Pacific Centre, 2014), 77,

[48] Ibid, 2.

[49] Ernest Gibson, Member of Pacific Youth Council, interview with author by email, 31 January 2020.

[50] Catherine Wilson, “Where Bees Reform Gangsters”, IPS (Inter Press Service), 6 April 2012,

[51] Catherine Wilson, “Youth Find a Future in Food Production”, IPS (Inter Press Service), 10 April 2013,

[52] Daniel Evans, Hard Work: Youth Employment Programming in Honiara, Solomon Islands, SSGM Discussion Paper 2016/7, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Canberra, Australia, 2016,


[53] Gerald Haberkorn, “Pacific Islands’ Population and Development: Facts, Fictions and Follies”, New Zealand Population Review, 33/34, 2008, 109,

[54] Estimated Pacific Islands urban population in 1971, World Bank data (Urban Population),; and Asian Development Bank, The State of Pacific Towns and Cities, 2012, xiv,

[55] United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN Habitat), “Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment”, 2014, 9,; and Asian Development Bank, “The Emergence of Pacific Urban Villages: Urbanization Trends in the Pacific Islands”, 2016,

[56] Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Pacific Island Populations: Estimates and Projections of Demographic Indicators for Selected Years, June 2016,

[57] A high proportion of land in the Pacific is under customary tenure where, “Land rights are managed by customary groups according to their own unique processes, which are linked to underlying social and spiritual belief systems”: Australian Agency for International Development, Making Land Work: Reconciling Customary Land and Development in the Pacific, (Canberra: Australian Agency for International Development, 2008),

[58] Meg Keen and Julien Barbara, “Pacific Urbanisation: Changing Times”, The State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University, In Brief 2015/64, 2015,; Asian Development Bank, “The State of Pacific Towns and Cities”, 2012,; Meg Keen and Luke Kiddle, “Priced Out of the Market: Informal Settlements in Honiara, Solomon Islands”, In Brief 2016/28, State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program (SSGM), ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 2016,

[59] World Bank, “Papua New Guinea: Urban Youth Employment Project”, 11 August 2013,

[60] Defined as those living on an income of less than SBD$10,334 per annum: Solomon Islands National Statistics Office, “Solomon Islands Poverty Profile Based on the 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey”, December 2015,

[61] Asian Development Bank, The State of Pacific Towns and Cities, Pacific Studies Series (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2012),

[62] Pamela Thomas and Meg Keen (eds), “Urban Development in the Pacific”, Development Bulletin No 78, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, August 2017,

[63] Radio New Zealand, “Youth Gang Crackdown in Vanuatu”, 25 August 2017,

[64] Pacific Islands Report, “Urban Poverty Cited in Honiara Riot Probe”, 2 November 2008,; Kate Romer and Andre Renzaho, “Re-Emerging Conflict in the Solomon Islands? The Underlying Causes and Triggers of the Riots of April 2006”, Journal of Peace Conflict & Development 10, March 2007,

[65] Lucy EJ Woods, “Evicted for a Showpiece Project, this PNG Community Fights for Justice”, Mongabay, 8 November 2018,

[66] Meg Keen and Julien Barbara, “Pacific Urbanisation: Changing Times”, The State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program, College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University, In Brief 2015/64, 2015,

[67] Tuiloma Neroni Slade, Pacific Challenges, The State of the World’s Children 2012, United Nations Children’s Fund, (New York: UNICEF, 2012), 46,

[68] Peter Balone Kanaparo, “Urban Youth Unemployment in Papua New Guinea, National Youth Commission”, PNG Ministry for Community Development, Lecture Presentation, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 17–19 June 2014,

[69] While ‘raskol’ gangs may have changed in nature, crimes committed by groups of young men persist: Ben Zand, “Port Moresby: The World’s Most Dangerous City to be a Woman”, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 27 September 2018,; Oleksiy Ivaschenko, “Reducing Youth Crime Through Employment? An Example from Papua New Guinea”, Urbanet, 24 January 2019,; Cameron Noble, Natalia Pereira and Nanise Saure, Urban Youth in the Pacific: Increasing Resilience and Reducing Risk for Involvement in Crime and Violence, (Suva: United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Pacific Centre, 2011), 78,; also see David Craig and Doug Porter, Safety and Security at the Edges of the State: Local Regulation in Papua New Guinea’s Urban Settlements, (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2018), 40,

[70] International Labour Organization, Child Labour in Papua New Guinea, International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), 2011, 52,

[71] Catherine Wilson, “Poverty Drives Child Labour”, IPS (Inter Press Service), News Feature, 17 July 2012,

[72] David Craig and Doug Porter, Safety and Security at the Edges of the State: Local Regulation in Papua New Guinea’s Urban Settlements, (Washington DC: The World Bank, 2018), 3,

[73] Meg Keen and Luke Kiddle, “Priced Out of the Market: Informal Settlements in Honiara, Solomon Islands”, In Brief 2016/28, State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program (SSGM), ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 2016,

[74] Don Matheson, Kunhee Park, Taniela Sunia Soakai, “Pacific Island Health Inequities Forecast to Grow Unless Profound Changes are Made to Health Systems in the Region”, Australian Health Review, 41, 20 February 2017,; Thirteenth Pacific Health Ministers Meeting, “Pacific Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Roadmap and Monitoring Alliance Action; Progress Update,’ French Polynesia, 5-8 August 2019,

[75] Brendan Quinn, “Alcohol, Other Substance Use and Related Harms Among Young People in the Solomon Islands”, Save the Children Australia, January 2016,; “Childhood Obesity, A Growing Concern”, Fiji TV, 21 February 2019,; Fiona J. Charlson, Sandra Diminic, Harvey A. Whiteford, “The Rising Tide of Mental Disorders in the Pacific Region: Forecasts of Disease Burden and Service Requirements from 2010-2050”, Asia & The Pacific Policy Studies, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, Vol 2, No 2 (2015),; Christine Jourdan, Youth and Mental Health in Solomon Islands: A Situational Analysis, Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific International, 2008,

[76] World Health Organization and Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Honiara Outcome, Ninth Meeting of Ministers of Health for Pacific Island Countries, June 2011, 24–25,

[77] Ian Anderson, The Economic Costs of Non-Communicable Diseases in the Pacific Islands: A Rapid Stocktake of the Situation in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, November 2012, 19-20,

[78] Jon Barnett, “Climate Change and Food Security in the Pacific Islands”, in John Connell, Kristen Lowitt, “Food Security in Small Island States”, Springer, Singapore, 2020, 25-38,

[79] International Diabetes Foundation, “IDF Diabetes Atlas: Global Factsheet”, 9th Edition, 2019,

[80] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, “Non-Communicable Diseases and Disability in the Pacific”, Forum Disability Ministers’ Meeting, Port Moresby, PNG, 3–4 October 2012,

[81] International Food Policy Research Institute, 2014 Nutrition Country Profile: Papua New Guinea, Global Nutrition Report, 2014,

[82] Brendan Quinn, “Alcohol, Other Substance Use and Related Harms Among Young People in the Solomon Islands”, Save the Children Australia, January 2016, 7,

[83] Tenth Pacific Health Ministers Meeting, ‘Towards Healthy Islands: Pacific Mental Health Response’ Apia, Samoa, 2-4 July 2013, 2,

[84] Based on number of years living with a disability: Fiona J. Charlson, Sandra Diminic, Harvey A. Whiteford, “The Rising Tide of Mental Disorders in the Pacific Region: Forecasts of Disease Burden and Service Requirements from 2010-2050”, Asia & The Pacific Policy Studies, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, Vol 2, No 2 (2015), 286,

[85] Don Matheson, Kunhee Park, Taniela Sunia Soakai, “Pacific Island Health Inequities Forecast to Grow Unless Profound Changes are Made to Health Systems in the Region”, Australian Health Review, 41, 20 February 2017, 590-98,

[86] Ian Anderson, The Economic Costs of Non-Communicable Diseases in the Pacific Islands: A Rapid Stocktake of the Situation in Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, November 2012, 19-20,

[87] Don Matheson et al, “Pacific Island Health Inequities”, 593,

[88] For example, a funding boost from K18 million in 2004 to K93 million in 2013. See Stephen Howes, Andrew Anton Mako, Anthony Swan, Grant Walton, Thomas Webster and Colin Wiltshire, A Lost Decade? Service Delivery and Reforms in Papua New Guinea 2002-2012, National Research Institute and Development Policy Centre, Canberra, October 2014, 84.

[89] See Howes et al, A Lost Decade?, 14.

[90] Solomon Islands Ministry of Health and Medical Services, National Health Strategic Plan 2016-2020, 2016, 28,

[91] United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Solomon Islands Youth Status Report 2018, 2018, 23,; Bruce Hill, “How Pacific Youth are Overcoming their Political Disenfranchisement Ahead of Elections”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 May 2018,

[92] Papua New Guinea National Parliament, General Information,; Pacific Women in Politics, ‘National Women MPs,’

[93] Kepios, Digital in 2018 Report, Singapore, 2018,; Glen Finau, Acklesh Prasad, Romitesh Kant, Jope Tarai, Sarah Logan and John Cox, Social Media and e-Democracy in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, 20th Americas Conference on Information Systems, Association for Information Systems, Savannah, Georgia, USA, 2014, 1-2, 5, 7,

[94] Ibid, 1.

[95] For example, Fiji and PNG, ibid, 6-7.

[96] The Madang-based Tropical Gems has more than 3000 members: Act Now! PNG: “Karkar Island Youth Protest Against Seabed Mining”, 2013,; Act Now! PNG, “Tropical Gem Get More Insight on Development of PNG”,

[97] Facebook, Pacific Youth Forum Against Corruption Solomon Islands,; “Fiji: Young People Call for Due Process and Wider Consultation”, Papua New Guinea Mine Watch, 21 September 2015,

[98] Grant Walton, “Governance and Corruption in PNG’s Public Service: Insights from Four Subnational Administrations”, Discussion Paper 81, Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia & the Pacific, Australian National University, April 2019, 14-16,; Transparency International PNG, Lest We Forget: A Review of 20 Unresolved Issues of National Concern 2007-2017, 2017,; Transparency International PNG, “PNG Scores ‘Highly Corrupt’ on the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index”, 29 January 2019,

[99] Catherine Wilson, “Papua New Guinea’s Unemployed Youth Say the Future They Want Begins with Them”, IPS (Inter Press Service), 20 April 2020,

[100] Representative of Transparency Solomon Islands, Interview with the author, 28 January 2014; see also Sinclair Dinnen and Grant Walton, “The Dark Side of Economic Globalisation: Politics, Organised Crime and Corruption in the Pacific”, Devpolicy Blog, 7 October 2016,; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: A Threat Assessment, April 2013, 89, 93,

[101] Grant Walton, “Anti-Corruption on the Frontline: An Interview with Sam Koim”, Devpolicy Blog, 11 June 2013,; and Bill Standish, “Elections in Papua New Guinea’s Dysfunctional Democracy”, East Asia Forum, 18 May 2017,

[102] Solomon Islands Auditor General, 2019 Report of the Auditor-General of the Solomon Islands on the Solomon Islands Government 2015 National Accounts, National Parliament Paper No 7 of 2019, June 2019, 12,

[103] Nicole Haley, Election Trends in Melanesia and Prospects for the 2014 Solomon Islands Elections, In Brief 2014/32, State, Society & Governance in Melanesia Program (SSGM), ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Canberra, Australia, 2014,

[104] Office of the Auditor-General, ‘Performance Audit Report: Tertiary Scholarships Management by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, Solomon Islands Government, March 2013.

[105] Catherine Wilson, “Corruption Smothering Pacific Students”, IPS (Inter Press Service), News Feature, 6 November 2013,

[106] United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Solomon Islands Government, Solomon Islands Youth Status Report 2018, 21,

[107] Anthony J Regan, “Bougainville – Large-Scale Mining and Risks of Conflict Recurrence”, Security Challenges, Vol 10, No 2 (2014), 74, 82,

[108] United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Solomon Islands Government, Solomon Islands Youth Status Report 2018, 11,

[109] Ibid, 11.

[110]Jon Fraenkel, “The Politics of Riots in the Solomon Islands”, Solomon Times, 30 April 2019,

[111] Bindi Bryce, “New Youth Authority in Vanuatu Sparks Interest in Solomon Islands”, ABC Radio Australia, 21 June 2018,

[112] UNDP, Solomon Islands Youth Status Report 2018, 121.

[113] Secretariat of the Pacific Community, The Pacific Youth Development Framework 2014–2023, Suva, Fiji, 2015,

[114] Secretariat of the Pacific Community, The Significance of Youth in Sustainable Development in the Pacific, Sustainable Development Brief, March 2013,

[115] National Strategic Plan Taskforce, Papua New Guinea Vision 2050, PNG Government, 2010,

[116] Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs, Solomon Islands National Youth Policy 2017-2030, Solomon Islands Government, 8 November 2017, 13,

[117] Fiji TV, “Youths Engage in National Youth Policy Consultations”, 2 December 2019,

[118] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Aid Program Performance Report Full APPR 2018–19: Australia Awards —A Global Picture, Sept 2019,

[119] Rachel Jolly, Director, Pacific Labour Mobility, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Interview with author, Canberra, Australia, 9 July 2019.

[120] Richard Curtain, Matthew Dornan, Jesse Doyle and Stephen Howes, Pacific Possible: Labour Mobility, The Ten Billion Dollar Prize,’ World Bank, July 2016,

[121] The ‘Working Holiday Maker’ visa adjustments, announced in November 2018: Stephen Howes, “Australia’s New Agricultural Visa”, Devpolicy Blog, 20 November 2018,

[122] Stephen Howes, “Time for a Permanent Australian Step-Up in Pacific Labour Mobility”, Devpolicy Blog, 12 December 2019,

[124] Richard Curtain, Matthew Dornan, Jesse Doyle and Stephen Howes, Pacific Possible: Labour Mobility - The Ten Billion Dollar Prize, World Bank, July 2016,

[125] Stephen Howes, “Time for a Permanent Australian Step-Up in Pacific Labour Mobility”.