Big problems need lots of little solutions

Aidan Craney, PhD candidate at La Trobe University, discusses some of the challenges in providing quick solutions to complex problems. 

For the better part of the last six months I have been between Fiji and Solomon Islands, conducting fieldwork for my PhD.

My research focuses on questions of youth livelihoods in the Pasifika region, where a youth bulge is prevalent. Roughly 20 per cent of the region’s population fall within the age range of 15-24 years and over half the total population are under the age of 25.

My focus on livelihoods looks to identify the competing and complementary issues which help or hinder the ability of youth communities to fulfil their potential and engage in their societies in positive and meaningful ways.

Though statistics on poverty across Pasifika states are recognised to be predictive rather than instructive, my experiences have shown me that issues related to how people put food on the table are real and pressing.

Whilst rural subsistence farming is considered a ‘safety net’ for most Islander peoples, this overlooks issues of food security for those in urban areas, and the risk of crop failure and devastation from natural disasters for rural communities, as took place across much of Solomon Islands earlier this year.

One interesting trend that I have picked up on in my interviews with people, generally local staff, engaged in the international development sector is a growing desire to improve the entrepreneurial skills of young Pasifika people. This is in direct response to the growing numbers of educated unemployed youth throughout the region.

Whilst there is some merit in encouraging young people to identify, improve and utilise their own resources to secure their current and future needs, this focus on entrepreneurialism strikes me as an ill-thought-out ‘Hail Mary’ – a hope that there is a one-size-fits-all fix to youth livelihoods issues in the region.

Ignoring the obvious, that there is no silver bullet to solve the region’s problems, the focus on entrepreneurialism fails to acknowledge the difficulties in creating a culture that embraces and supports start-up enterprises.

Firstly, the idea that entrepreneurialism can be taught strikes me as extremely idealistic. To be an entrepreneur requires both hard and soft resources: basic resources and start-up costs, yes; but also self-motivation, critical thinking and business nous.

While hard resources can be secured with assistance and business skills can be taught, self-motivation is incumbent on the individual and critical thinking requires a culture that supports questioning and complexity.

My research suggests such a culture does not currently exist within many Pasifika societies, particularly for young people, who are often expected to be subservient to elders and experts. For example, during my research I regularly faced difficulties in seeking responses from youth to questions that they had not been asked before, or would not have heard others talking about. Similarly, in focus groups with youth across rural and urban communities in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, participants had great difficulty in identifying someone who fit into the categories of both ‘youth’ and ‘leader’. Such incidents may seem insignificant, but they speak to me of a wider deficit of critical thinking and imagining in Pasifika youth populations.

If livelihoods issues are to be adequately addressed with any community a suite of measures are required – improved agrarian food security, technical skills training and a greater focus on education providing youth with skills to adapt to changing situations among them. Entrepreneurialism may well prove to be one of the most significant of these measures, but too great a focus on it is unlikely to help people in Pasifika continue to meet their basic needs.

@AidanSeamus

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