Any political party that aspires to contest the 2014 election should have one imperative in mind above all others – the need to provide Fiji’s young people with jobs and viable, sustainable futures. There are disturbing signs – not least in the escalating suicide rate – that many young people have lost hope that they can ever “make it” in the way that popular culture and peer pressure dictates. All around them in the media are images of wealth and success that only make their sense of isolation and failure more acute. It’s heartbreaking enough to see the stories of children from poor families being excluded from attending school because their parents can’t afford the fees. But what’s the point of a good education if there are not enough jobs to go around when children leave their centres of learning? To coin the sentiments in the National Anthem, how can our voices ring with pride if the legacy we bequeath our young people is one of false hope and disillusionment?
Forget about politics. Job creation for young people is the number one priority in Fiji. On second thoughts, don’t forget about politics. Because the lowering of the voting age to 18 in the 2014 election means that any party that doesn’t make this the number one priority does so at its peril. The many thousands of young people voting for the first time – and that will include some 29-year olds because we haven’t had an election since 2006 – will be using their clout at the ballot box to support those who support them. They are not stupid. Unlike some of their parents, they are savvy enough to see through the dog whistles and empty promises of the tired old faces for whom politics is about self interest rather than the interests of the wider community. They don’t care about racial politics, a Christian state, the Great Council of Chiefs or whether the Queen is on the saqamoli or the Union Jack on the national flag. They want their political leaders to put aside their differences, bury the divisions of the past and finally place their interests first.
The smart ones don’t want government handouts. They want whatever government that emerges to create the conditions for the economy to grow, for businesses to invest, for a healthy job market and the chance for them to use their education and skills to create better lives for themselves. They want choices. They want to make it on their own. And many have started to think that a job is not enough. Rather than “working for the man”, trudging every day to their cakacaka and dreaming of the weekend, why not start a business themselves? Why not be their own boss? Why not reap the rewards of hard work themselves? It’s the role of government to create the conditions in which businesses can thrive. And it’s certainly the role of government to help people acquire the skills they need for themselves and for the development of a smarter nation. Fijians love to compete on the sporting field the world over. Yet it’s surely time to think about competing more effectively in an economic sense, to produce things that other people want to buy rather than using what scarce resources we have to buy what other people are smart enough to produce.
Grubsheet’s preoccupation with youth employment and how Fiji can become a smarter, more competitive nation has been triggered by two events this week that left a big impression. The first was the opening on Wednesday of two more of the 20 community Telecentres that the Government is creating all over the country to give poorer and more isolated Fijians free access to the Internet. By the end of this year, an estimated 60-thousand more Fijians – including 5000 school children – will have computer and Internet access plus a range of other services like scanning and photocopying and the ability to use website chat services like Skype. Many of these people in more remote areas will never have used a computer, let alone surfed the net or spoken to their family members as far away as Liberia or Iraq. Imagine the world of opportunity that has suddenly opened up for young people in isolated places -the opportunity to acquire knowledge, the opportunity for contact, the opportunity to let their imaginations soar.
Whatever one’s views about the Bainimarama Government, is there any single initiative in the past that has such potential to transform the lives of ordinary Fijians, to empower them and make them smarter? As Grubsheet watched the faces of school kids at these Telecentres sitting at their computers with a combination of curiosity, excitement and awe, I certainly couldn’t think of one. Outboard motors? Yeah, that was big. Radios? Certainly. Generators? Of course. Television? Well, yes and no. Mobile phones? Great if you remember your charger. But the Internet and Skype? The word revolution tends to be overused but this is certainly a telecommunications revolution that will transform – and is already transforming – the lives of ordinary Fijians.
At the opening of the Telecentres at Baulevu and Tailevu, the Prime Minister urged schoolchildren to use the Telecentres to broaden their horizons. As the first of the delighted kids sat down at their screens, you could sense the horizon crashing in at a far greater rate than any approaching tsunami. Their parents – who will use the Telecentres after hours and on weekends – looked decidedly more skeptical –showing clear signs of the generation gap when it comes to new technology. But the PM assured them not to be daunted. There were Telecentre staff on hand to assist them and they’d soon get used to it too. A click of a mouse is now all it takes to link these Fijians instantaneously with the far corners of the earth. As the PM also told the teachers in the schools where the Telecentres are housed: “you are now preparing your children for lives that are only as limited as their imaginations”.
A day later, on Thursday, came another event that is full of promise when 46 young people – many from poorer families – received the first of the 50 annual scholarships the Government is providing to encourage careers in farming and transform Fiji’s agricultural base. Applicants of both sexes were successful in gaining entry to a 12-month certificate course in agriculture at the Fiji National University. The opportunity to undergo a tertiary course is, of course, a big plus. But what makes this program different is that these young people are guaranteed jobs at the end of their studies. They’ll receive $70,000 loan packages to pay for everything they need to get started –100 acres of farm land, a tractor and basic farm implements, fertiliser and other material, a house and shed and start up cash of $2,000.They’ll also be allocated a government officer to supervise their own start-up businesses and be given performance targets that they’re expected to meet. After that, success or otherwise is up to them.
This is not just a youth job creation program but a bold initiative to modernise agriculture in Fiji and put it on a more commercial footing by properly training a new generation of farmers. Directly addressing the scholarship recipients, the Prime Minister laid out a vision of Fiji producing enough food to feed its people and exporting to the rest of the world. Hailing them as the farmers of tomorrow, the Prime Minster challenged them to be the pioneers of a national effort to reduce Fiji’s dependence on imported foodstuffs. “We’ve relied far too much on imports when we have vast tracts of under-utilised fertile lands capable producing the food we need. We are capable of producing not just for our basic needs but for the hotels and for markets overseas. I ask you all to imagine the difference this initiative can make in a few year’s time. A new breed of farmers all formally trained and equipped with the tools to do their jobs. This initiative, we believe, will change the way we Fijians view farming and farmers”, the Prime Minister added.
Imagination. There’s suddenly a lot of it about, which in this instance, is a great thing for the country and the young people involved. As the scholarship recipients went up one by one to receive their letters of appointment, there was something about their demeanour that induced broad smiles on the part of many of those present, the Prime Minister included. Male and female, i’Taukei, Indo-Fijian and Kailoma, some brimmed with confidence, others seemed emotional and close to tears. The FNU Vice Chancellor, Dr Ganesh Chand, said many had come from poverty-stricken families. They undoubtedly grasped that this was the chance of a lifetime.
The Prime Minister spoke this week about creating a world of difference for ordinary Fijians. That may still be a work in progress but his latest initiative has certainly created a world of difference for 46 young Fijians. Commodore Bainimarama said he had one message for those present: “You are being given a unique opportunity. Seize this opportunity for yourselves, your families and for all Fijians. You will make them and us proud”. Fiji needs more opportunities like this for its young people. A lot more. As a nation, we need to make it our biggest priority. But this was a day of hope. And there’s plenty of that around nowadays too.