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Fiji: Youth and democracy

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5 January 2012 14:32

Sue Hackney completed a qualitative research project in Fiji for Oxfam as part of her Masters of Public Health in 2011, though the views discussed below do not necessarily reflect those of Oxfam. The research is as yet unpublished but copies can be requested from the author.

Fiji is at a critical stage if it is to make a transition to democracy. Yet Fiji's young people, the largest age-group within the population, are ill-prepared; they have little knowledge and experiences of democratic principles, rights and processes. 

I recently completed a small qualitative study for Oxfam to provide further evidence to inform its strategic planning of future aid and advocacy work in Fiji. The study aimed to obtain data about the nature of adversities faced by community members and the types of coping strategies they used. It also sought to understand participant's awareness of their rights and access to public goods and services. 

A series of community consultations were conducted with various demographic groups from rural and peri-urban centres. A majority of participants were between 18 and 25, which is reflective of the country's age profile — over half the 837,000 Fijian population are aged under 25, and one-third are below 14.

The main adversities reported by young people were difficulties in obtaining employment and further education. These were interrelated with concerns about corruption and the steadily increasing cost of living. Due to the lack of local opportunities, most young people from rural areas saw their future in the city and those from urban areas saw their future overseas.

When discussions about the political situation arose, many young people expressed support for the present regime – consistent with results in the Lowy Institute's recent Fiji Poll. They stated that Prime Minister Bainimarama was implementing reforms to fight corruption, developing a People's Charter and improving the voting system. They also said that Bainimarama believed young people's minds should be promoted and developed. They appeared confident that they would be able to vote for the first time in the elections scheduled for 2014.

However, young people's immediate environments appeared to be dominated by institutions based on autocratic forms of organisation and decision-making. As they discussed their lives, it became apparent that only a minority had equal input into decisions made by parents about their future. None described dedicated avenues to voice youth needs and opinions in village meetings or religious-based youth groups, and all final decisions were made by elders or leaders.

Other research has noted that the Fijian school curriculum lacks a coherent stream of education in subjects such as citizenship, democracy and civic society. When this is combined with the dominance of autocratic institutions in young people's environments, there are few, if any opportunities available for them to learn about democratic values and processes.

By analysing trends across the globe, US political demographer Richard Cincotta suggests that countries showing a 'youth bulge' are at high risk of political instability. Although a range of factors can affect the course of events, when much of a country's population is young, authoritarian regimes have shown a greater capacity to mobilise and recruit youth (particularly unemployed males) with resulting fractious politics.

Cincotta notes, however, that in some instances, states have actually been able to make democratic gains in response to pressure from youth-led democracy movements. As the population profile reaches a more mature age structure, a country is more likely to attain a stable liberal democracy.

Given limited internal sources of mentoring and support for democratic values and processes, external resources must be provided, and the most logical providers are nearby countries with the experience and interest to do so. Australia, with its strong economic ties to Fiji, is very well placed to provide this assistance. Since the 2006 coup however, relations between the countries have deteriorated to the extent any regular high-level bilateral communication have virtually ceased.

Although there are no guarantees about whether elections scheduled to occur Fiji in 2014 will take place, time is running out.  The longer the political instability continues, the further the economic situation will decline and the greater the hardships faced by community members.

Photo by Flickr user infiniteview.

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