Melanesia New Voices: Investing in the Next Generation
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Melanesia New Voices: Investing in the Next Generation

The Lowy Institute for International Policy, in cooperation with the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Secretariat with the support of PACMAS and the ANZ Bank convened a Dialogue with emerging leaders from Melanesia in Port Vila, Vanuatu on 23 June.

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Key Findings
  • Melanesian countries need to better cater for their growing young populations, including through establishing youth centres and targeted programs.
  • Prosperity and peace is achieved through embracing the dignity of Melanesian identity, which includes respecting the New Caledonian decolonisation process and acknowledging West Papuan aspirations for human rights and self-determination.
  • Melanesian countries are making good use of technological innovation, but infrastructure gaps and limited access to finance constrain the development of innovative small businesses.

Executive Summary

The Lowy Institute for International Policy, in cooperation with the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Secretariat with the support of PACMAS and the ANZ Bank convened a Dialogue with emerging leaders from Melanesia in Port Vila, Vanuatu on 23 June.

The Dialogue, entitled Melanesia New Voices: Investing in the Next Generation, brought together 25 emerging leaders – five each from Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – to discuss common challenges, their hopes for the future of their region and opportunities for cooperation.  The Dialogue considered three principal ideas: Resilience, Innovation and Political Change. 

This Dialogue event was unique in assembling young people from a variety of sectors – including finance, law, public service, small business, civil society, information technology, and communications – from across the region outside of formal inter-governmental meetings.

Participants in the Dialogue produced a short outcomes statement at the conclusion of the event, which included policy recommendations for their political leaders who were meeting at the MSG Leaders’ Summit in the same week. 

The participants in the Dialogue called on Melanesian leaders to better articulate a Melanesian Way for the 21st century. This should uphold traditional Melanesian values such as a sense of community, self-reliance, and unity in diversity, and incorporate values important to young people such as gender equality, participation of disabled people and minorities, and sustainable, ethical and inclusive approaches to development.  They also called on leaders to create space for young people in Melanesia to contribute to political and economic decision-making processes.


Session 1: Resilience

In this session, ni-Vanuatu participants shared their experiences of recovery from Tropical Cyclone Pam, a category 5 storm which struck Vanuatu in March 2015.  The affected communities, particularly those on the island of Tanna, who experienced mass devastation, showed remarkable resilience in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone.   Members of each community came together to share food and other resources, replant crops and help those worst affected.  Coping with cyclones is a part of life in Vanuatu and people are used to managing their own recovery.  There was no tension until relief supplies were delivered from Port Vila, sparking division over who should receive those supplies.

International media coverage focused on the worst news from the cyclone such as the number of deaths, which was small for such an extreme storm, and the infrastructure that was destroyed.  But the more interesting story was the resilience of the people, who worked quickly and cooperatively before outside help arrived to replant and rebuild.  People who had lost everything helped others before they asked for help themselves. This resilience perhaps demonstrates that Vanuatu society is largely self-reliant and has low expectations of government service delivery.

Resilience, however, could be compromised by the growing popularity of consumer goods.  Some participants were concerned that new laws were incentivising individualism and undermining traditional social safety nets.  There are signs that assistance from governments and aid donors have caused communities and individuals to develop a mentality of dependence and diminished the ability of people to solve problems themselves and, just as importantly, teach their culture and values to the next generation.

The spread of Western culture, economic practices and individualism threatened Melanesian cultural identity.  Elements of what young people perceived to be Melanesian culture, such as reggae music, were in fact borrowed from non-Western cultures – in the case of reggae, from Jamaica.  In New Caledonia, for example, traditional music had fused with Western musical styles to create a unique modern Kanak style. Culture should perhaps be seen as evolving rather than endangered.

Some participants said Melanesians are not generally encouraged to be proud of their culture as other Pacific Islanders were.  Young Melanesians, like young people everywhere, are more interested in new technology and new trends than in learning about and investing in their own culture.  The advent of Facebook has enabled people to share their experiences but has also resulted in many young people becoming observers rather than participants.

Maintaining Melanesian cultural identity is particularly apposite in New Caledonia, where French influence was dominant and the political and economic system was Western.  New Caledonia itself is not well understood in France and French colonial rule in New Caledonia had not adapted well to   local circumstances.  Resilience in New Caledonia is closely aligned with traditional values. 

Teaching children their own language in the early years of schooling is an important way to preserve local languages.  Parents are the first teachers and should take primary responsibilities for passing on kastom or tradition, including through language.

Participants reflected on the meaning of the “Melanesian Way”.   Some suggested the “Melanesian Way” is characterised by the value Melanesian people put on land and community rather than possessions.  The wantok system, which traditionally is a means of building relationships through the exchange of gifts and acts as a traditional social safety net, is also integral to the “Melanesian Way”.

Some participants considered that the contemporary practice of Melanesian culture would have shocked their ancestors.  One participant said her ancestors – from a matrilineal society in Solomon Islands – would be very surprised that women were not influencing decision-making in contemporary society.  Is it possible to resolve the apparent clash between Melanesian values and modern lifestyles?

One way to stay true to Melanesian values would be to find a new development paradigm that is not based on the Western model.  Using international measures of development such as GDP growth and the Millennium Development Goals to judge progress is not compatible with Melanesian thinking about development. Melanesian countries should not have to make a choice between tradition and modernity as development is a fluid process.

New approaches to development in Melanesia are badly needed.  Participants thought that donors and foreign investors were too dominant in defining appropriate development paths in Melanesia and believed their governments should be developing new frameworks for development that upheld Melanesian dignity and moral strength.  The dominant development narratives should be reframed to ensure Melanesian culture is sustainable.

For young people working for international companies, often in a multicultural and diverse environment, it is difficult to maintain cultural integrity as a Melanesian.  It is frustrating for young people to see older Melanesian colleagues in such work environments defer to foreign employees.  Following principles set out by Papua New Guinea Minister for National Planning, Charles Abel, some of Papua New Guinea’s young professionals are adopting policies in the workplace that demonstrate respect for their culture and values and also allow their voices to be heard.

Participants felt it was important to develop a new regional identity and vision that reflect values that are common to all Melanesian countries in order to assist young people who are managing a number of competing influences  – Western, religious, mainstream media, kastom – and  want to feel proud of their cultural identity.  Spaces where young people from Melanesian countries could connect are vital to building a common future for the region.

People with disabilities battle for recognition in Melanesian society.  The evolution of a new “Melanesian Way” should ensure inclusion for people with disabilities.


Session 2: Innovation

Melanesian countries are making good use of technological innovation despite the gaps in availability and price of new technology.  Demand for high-speed internet is growing.  Businesses saw advantages to going on-line.  In Vanuatu, the government placed a high priority on e-government services and had developed a mobile governance strategy. 

Participants believed that infrastructure development to enable people to take advantage of innovative technology needed to rank highly on the priorities of Melanesian countries.  Innovation is a popular word but the region needed more avenues for financing young people to make their ideas happen.  Measures such as crowd funding are viewed as more appropriate for Melanesian culture.

Some participants believed the education curriculum also needed to change.  School students were not taught how to think or to question, which did not encourage or support innovation.  More national and private sector innovation was needed.  Melanesian countries have narrow economic bases.  Solomon Islands, for example, relied on logging for 60 per cent of its income, which is not sustainable.  Revenue from the few other commodities that are traded is not sufficient to replace revenue from logging.  Innovation is needed to widen the economic base. 

Infrastructure gaps are a major challenge for small businesses in the region. High transport costs, high utility costs and poor connectivity are significant barriers to doing business.   These barriers do not allow a manufacturing sector to develop fully or compete regionally.  The region needs to look at different business models, niche products, and developing “cottage industries”.  The aquaculture sector has potential as it offers opportunities for villages to generate income and complements traditional ways of life.

Some participants noted the difficulties of accessing credit from commercial banks in the region.  Most Melanesian people could not provide land titles or land valuations to banks because of the contestability of title.  It is difficult to obtain credit cards.   Commercial banks would not take equity risks on debt and with an 80 per cent failure rate for small businesses, did not issue loans to start-up businesses.  National development banks, however, could take higher risks. Although the record of development banks in the region was mixed, they offer good options to support business development.  Governments, however, could be finding more ways to provide equity for small business development.

In Papua New Guinea, the Stret Pasin initiative – a business incubation program – targets disempowered young people and helps them get involved in micro enterprises.  It also has a special focus on helping women at risk gain access to opportunities to establish small businesses.

In Fiji, there is recognition that financing mechanisms outside the commercial banks are necessary.  A small to medium enterprise credit guarantee scheme provides a 50 per cent guarantee to banks for any loans that are defaulted on.  But political will is needed to develop more creative and accessible financing schemes.  The Fiji stock market is looking to provide venture capital funding but limiting this to the technology sector.

There were challenges for Melanesians in seeking to adopt a Western approach to running a business. There were societal expectations that successful businesspeople should support relatives and wantoks before reinvesting in the business.  Young people are under pressure to support their communities.  A societal mind-shift might be required in order for successful businesses to grow in number.

Many young people and in particular young women rely on financial support from family members to start businesses.  Some people have been able to save from working part-time while they studied overseas.  Melanesian women seldom own land and typically spend income on the household and children so it is difficult for them to access commercial financing options.  Women have to work especially hard to separate their business commitments from family commitments.  But women who succeeded in business were frequently recognised by their communities.

Some participants said individuals who started businesses need to have long-term approaches to budgeting and managing their businesses and should not be relying on government support.  In Solomon Islands, for example, there was some evidence that small businesses which did not rely on government grants were more likely to succeed because they were incentivised to make a profit.  It is more important for governments to reform legislation to create a better enabling environment for business.  Government and the private sector need more collaboration and consultation to develop good policies.

Family-run businesses tended to have a high failure rate. Some participants who run their own businesses said it is critical to make the boundaries between the operations of the business and family obligations very clear.

The development of land is a sensitive issue in Melanesia.  There are three types of land tenure in the region – custom land, private and public.  Custom land tenure is perceived as an obstacle to development because in most cases it could not be sold or leased.  In New Caledonia, custom land owners are looking into ways and means of using their land to encourage economic development but the bureaucratic administration involved in enabling this has been hampering progress.

Governments in Melanesia tended to seek to dominate sectors which might be better left to the private sector and generally did not adopt policies which enabled the growth of small to medium businesses.  But the informal economy in Melanesia was vibrant and home to much innovation which should be encouraged.  Supporting enterprise in the creative industries is important if young people want to maintain their culture.

Creating spaces for young people to engage in dialogue will be important for the future.  Young people need to be inspired to take responsibility for themselves.  One participant talked about her organisation in Papua New Guinea which helped to develop young leaders in universities and encouraged them to address problems in their communities.  A PNG radio station, FM100, also broadcast conversations with young people with a focus on tackling the challenges that are common to youth all over the country.

In New Caledonia, youth groups have established a special standing in their communities and are working to bring people together to be involved in a wider debate on changing roles in society as the process of political change evolves.  Melanesians in New Caledonia have special customary obligations and have to manage these with work and other commitments.

Melanesia is a region rich in resources and culture and is probably ahead of many other countries in developing in a sustainable fashion.  Countries in the region could benefit from more cooperation culturally and economically and work together to create viable markets for trade.

One participant explained the concept of the youth market in Solomon Islands.  The market, which targeted 250 young people in each phase, provides a venue for young people to sell their products over a three-day event.  Businesses sponsor song and dance competitions at the market to enhance its popularity.  Eight successful businesses have developed from this forum – including in jewellery making, catering, and t-shirt printing.  This model could be adopted in other Melanesian countries.

Some participants expressed frustration that Melanesian people do not seem to value their own expertise.  Governments frequently turn to donor partners or external institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corporation for technical advice rather than look for it at home.  Educated and experienced Melanesians need to empower themselves to provide the expertise and advice their countries and other countries in the region require.  More sharing of experiences and learning from each other, including through the Melanesian Spearhead Group, could be very beneficial.


Session 3: Political Change

Participants discussed ways young people could get more involved in the political process and how political representation could be made fairer.

Just as there are barriers to women getting into politics, there are also obstacles to young people seeking parliamentary representation.  In Papua New Guinea, for example, preparing young people to be leaders is a challenge. The Voice Inc PNG is one group devoted to building leadership skills in young people and encouraging them to be active citizens and take responsibility for their nation.  Young people need to establish a presence in their communities, build networks and demonstrate they are active members of society, who respect their culture and their elders.

Politics in Papua New Guinea is a rich man’s game.  Candidates need about A$400,000 to fund campaigns.  Many members of parliament are motivated by wealth and power.  Only a few genuinely want to influence development and reform.  Papua New Guineans do not vote for candidates based on their party membership but on what they as individuals promise to deliver.  Voter expectations are high and this puts a lot of pressure on members of parliament to deliver within their five-year term – both to those who invested in their campaign and to the voters.  The best way for young people to get involved in politics is to be strategic in their thinking and take the time to build a reputation and a track record of service. 

In Fiji, the government is focusing on building a national identity that is designed to be more inclusive of both the indigenous i-Taukei and Indo-Fijian communities.  Fiji has a process underway to adopt a new flag, which has led to much debate and divided opinion.  A youth parliament which had not been held for ten years was restarted last year.  Young people want a say in their community and in politics.

In Solomon Islands, the Young Women’s Parliamentary Group was established as a forum where young women could discuss political issues.  It is supported by the UNDP’s Parliamentary Strengthening Program.  This forum enables women to contribute to the development of legislation.  Last year the Group submitted a petition to parliament which was considered by parliament.  The Group was able to participate in the process of drafting and debating the Family Protection Bill, which was passed by parliament in August 2014.  Even though there are no women in the Solomon Islands national parliament, the members are listening to the Young Women’s Parliamentary Group.

Participants from New Caledonia explained the history of the ongoing struggle for independence, which was not well known amongst the participants from other Melanesian countries, and which might offer some lessons for those wishing to support the West Papuan people. The road towards independence is a long one in New Caledonia and is perhaps unique in the international arena. The Kanak population is anxious to persuade all residents of New Caledonia that they can build a nation that is respectful of everyone.  But they need recognition of their indigenous culture and the social and economic inequality they have suffered.

The New Caledonian participants expressed concern that young people in New Caledonia were losing their roots as many of them live in Noumea and its outer suburbs rather than rural areas and struggled to maintain traditions.  The current cohort of youth may be a “crossroads generation” – the link between old and new, traditional culture and modernity – as there is no guarantee the next generation would be interested in learning about their traditions.

Participants discussed the issue of West Papuan independence and considered how they could make a difference in bringing the issue to international attention. 

There was significant discussion of and coverage of the West Papuan issue on social media, most notably Facebook, but participants felt there were too many “keyboard warriors” and not enough people taking real action.  In Papua New Guinea, for example, where there is much on-line support for West Papuans, when pro-West Papuan protests and demonstrations have been held, few people participated.

Some participants were concerned that their leaders were turning their backs on West Papuans – their Melanesian brothers and sisters.  Others recognised that the complexity of the geo-political environment made it difficult for leaders to make decisions purely on the basis of a sentiment of brotherhood.  Indonesia was a large country and an important strategic link for Melanesian countries with Asia.

The fragmentation amongst West Papuan advocacy groups contributed to uncertainty about how best to support the West Papuan people.  Some participants cautioned that campaigning for independence may not be the best way to help West Papua if it is not yet ready for independence.  The West Papuan people have probably lost more of their culture and identity than any other Melanesian society.  Perhaps the best way for civil society in Melanesia to help is to offer practical support to communities in West Papua itself.  Governments need to be strategic in their approach to the issue and use the UN Decolonisation Committee process if possible, even if that takes many years.



The group made a number of recommendations for Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders to consider:

  • Leaders should create space for young people in Melanesia to contribute to political and economic decision-making processes. 
  • Melanesian countries need to better cater for the needs of their growing young populations, including through establishing youth centres, and providing targeted education and entrepreneurial programs.
  • Leaders should convene regular dialogue with their people that reflects Melanesian values and ensures mutual accountability.
  • The region needs to recognise that prosperity and peace is achieved through embracing the dignity of Melanesian identity.  This includes respect for the decolonisation process in New Caledonia.  Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders should also acknowledge the aspirations of West Papuans for human rights and self-determination.
  • Resilience is an important attribute of Melanesian culture and should be supported in government policies.  But it cannot be taken for granted; for example, the effects of climate change will test the limits of the people’s resilience. 
  • Leaders should recognise in a more substantial way the vital role women play in society and the economy and actively promote women’s rights, including through equal access to education and training. 
  • Traditional and social media are a powerful means of communication, particularly for young people but mainstream reporting in the region tends to be dominated by external media outlets.  Melanesian countries need to build the capacity of an independent media to communicate news with a Melanesian perspective to both domestic and international audiences.  This would help to build a much-needed sense of pride in their culture.
  • The Melanesian Spearhead Group should find ways to leverage lessons from the region on financial inclusion to allow young people to have access to better economic opportunities.  Governments should create an enabling environment that fosters innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship and better consultation with the private sector.



Areas of expertise: Pacific Islands politics; Pacific Islands economic and social development; governance; statebuilding