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Oaktree: COVID-19 and Youth in the Indo-Pacific

Alexi Heazle | Indo-Pacific Fellow

Photo Credit: The Oaktree Foundation

Alexi Heazle, our Indo-Pacific Fellow, sat down with the Policy and Advocacy team at Oaktree to discuss the status of young people in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the context of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.

Oaktree is Australia’s largest youth-led international development organisation, coordinating both domestic and regional programs to empower young people to create change in their communities and beyond.

Oaktree, as Australia's largest youth-led development organisation, advocates for a greater focus on youth participation and decision-making in Australian development and aid initiatives. Why is it important for young people to be involved in these processes, especially in the Indo-Pacific region?

Coming to Oaktree, it was astounding to learn that 50% of the global population is under the age of 30 with nine out of 10 young people living in countries classified as developing. Closer to home, the Indo-Pacific is experiencing a ‘youth bulge’ where 1.7 billion young people are under the age of 25. This youth bulge brings with it a wave of development-related social, economic and security concerns. High youth unemployment and insecure or informal employment for young people are just some of the issues we see today. Add to this the new pressures of COVID-19 (which disproportionately affect young people!) and existing crises such as climate change, we see a concerning future for young people in the Indo-Pacific.

In light of this, the Australian Government has not flagged youth as a high-level priority in the aid program. The inclusion of youth perspectives is a prerequisite for inclusive, sustainable and effective development work. Giving young people a seat at the table is especially vital in the Indo-Pacific region as Australian development and aid initiatives predominantly impact this demographic’s lives. Who is better placed to inform development policy-making than those experiencing the challenges of poverty, resource-scarcity and disempowerment first-hand?

NGOs and advocacy groups can often hit roadblocks when attempting to link their rationales with wider narratives of "national interest" of the government they are advocating to. How does a greater level of youth participation in the region benefit Australia? Are there any implications for regional stability?

When we look at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s 2020/2021 corporate plan, we know that a strong and stable region is critical to securing our national interests. With this in mind, it becomes strategically necessary for Oaktree to frame our advocacy in terms of national security. This is a logical narrative to use when we consider the risks the youth bulge presents to Australia and the region’s long-term stability and prosperity.

High levels of youth unemployment amongst the disenfranchised youth demographic in the Indo-Pacific region coupled with the impact of COVID-19 increases the risk of social unrest. According to research on civic instability, an increase of just 1% in the youth bulge increases the risk of political conflict by 4%.

This is why Oaktree advocates for Australia to respond to this growing crisis by implementing a youth strategy within its foreign policy and development priorities. We want the federal government to generate a long-term vision for young people and their roles in maintaining and increasing regional security, social stability, economic prosperity and resilience; all aspects that Australia can truly benefit from. A youth strategy would increase youth participation, enhance youth empowerment, and over time, mainstream youth voices in political and decision-making processes that help maintain Australia’s national interests. This is how increased youth participation in decision-making would enhance regional stability.

Young people have been identified as a highly at-risk demographic in crisis situations such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Why are young people so vulnerable?

Young people and women have been the hardest hit demographic by the COVID-19 pandemic, facing the brunt of economic fallout. As we know from the youth bulge, young people account for the largest demographic in the job market within the Indo-Pacific region. However, young people's over-representation in informal employment has rendered them highly vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. As many as 84.4% of young people in the Indo-Pacific worked in informal employment prior to the pandemic. Since the pandemic, many of these young people were left without safety nets and have lost their jobs and income streams. Furthermore, as relatively newer labour market entrants, young people are most vulnerable to being viewed as the most expendable and to being laid off. COVID-19 has also disproportionately impacted sectors with a high representation of young staff, including retail and hospitality.

Young people’s access to education has also been severely affected. Lockdowns have prevented young people from attending schools and universities, or limited their access to an online capacity. 91% of students worldwide have been affected by school closures. Due to the digital divide, 463 million children have simply had to halt their education. Young women and girls in particular are vulnerable as their time is also disproportionately devoted to domestic responsibilities. Concerningly, an estimated 20 million young women and girls are at risk of never returning to school after COVID-19 lockdown periods and economic hardship.

This is just a snapshot of the impact COVID-19 has had on young people’s educational and economic prospects.

In response to the pandemic, the Australian Government announced a one-off supplement of $304.7 million for the COVID-19 response in the Pacific and Timor-Leste over the next two years. Has the Australian aid response to COVID-19 recognised and taken into account these vulnerabilities for young people you have outlined? If not, what are the potential consequences?

The additional $304.7 million is designed to target the immediate health needs of those nations. However, the package will not address major vulnerabilities young people across the Pacific will experience as the world emerges from the immediate health crisis and looks to long term economic recovery and growth. For example, the government’s response strategy does not stretch beyond two years.

The ongoing undervaluing of youth in the region by governments and aid donor governments has contributed to the dismal state of development for youth. As a result of the pandemic, between 10 and 15 million youth jobs may be lost across 13 countries in the Indo-Pacific. This could see youth unemployment rates doubling in the Pacific, from their already high levels of 23%.

With young people under the age of 25 occupying over half of the Pacific's total population of 10 million, Oaktree believes it's time that young people were made a high priority in Australia's development program by adopting a youth strategy - in other words, youth focused aid policies and youth-participation in decision-making processes. The United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID) adopted such a strategy in 2015. Embracing this strategy would direct proportionate attention to youth issues and the vulnerabilities of young people, and facilitate youth-led solutions to the significant development issues we face within the region. To do otherwise would risk a less effective and sustainable development policy, and a less secure, stable, and prosperous region for us all.

Alexi Heazle is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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