Youth, Poverty, and Conflict in Southeast Asian Cities
With the majority of the world's population now living in cities, the 21st century is undoubtedly an urban century. Mega-cities add millions of new residents each year and many small- and medium-sized cities are growing at unprecedented rates. Such rapid urbanization poses serious challenges to local governments and urban managers in the developing world, as they confront crowded slums, congested streets, poor environmental conditions, and stark social inequalities.
That urban conditions are harsh in the developing world is not a new phenomenon, but some have suggested that a new urgency exists. As many of these countries go through demographic transitions, the potential for increasing youth cohorts to create conflict in cities seems, to some researchers, to be reaching acute proportions. On April 8-9, 2003 the Comparative Urban Studies Project joined with the Urban Management Centre of the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok to examine the linkages between urbanization, youth populations, poverty, and conflict, with particular emphasis on Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Dr. Peter Xenos, of the East-West Center, began the conference by analyzing current demographic trends in Southeast Asia. Indeed, Dr. Xenos noted rising numbers of youth, especially in urban areas. Youth increasingly make up a larger share of the national population, he said, and growth rates for youth populations seem to be significantly higher than growth rates for populations as a whole. Dr. Xenos maintained that the importance of growing youth cohorts nationally is made all the more important when combined with current social trends: the urbanward movement of youth, later marriage, rising school enrollment, and declining proportions of youth in the workforce. However, the implications for levels of conflict remain unclear.
Throughout the conference, participants expressed concern about linking demographic trends to a somewhat hazy notion of conflict. In the first panel, Dr. Yap Kioe Sheng, of UNESCAP, cited three dictionary definitions of conflict: "fight, struggle," "sharp disagreement," and "emotional disturbance from clash of opposing impulses or from inability to reconcile differences." Dr. Yap argued that the concept of conflict was sufficiently vague to promote misconceptions about inevitable causal linkages between large youth populations and violence. Both Dr. Yap and Dr. Xenos highlighted the need to pursue further research, disaggregating youth populations within cities to further determine the conditions that lead to social instability and more importantly, to devise development strategies appropriate for urban populations.
During the remainder of the conference, participants examined the particular situations of youth in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Panelists emphasized the roles of civil society and government in devising strategies for improving the lives of youth in Southeast Asia, but noted that the inclusion of youth themselves in the process was of the utmost importance.
In the case of Thailand, participants agreed that the theoretical framework for improving the lives of youth already exists. Dr. Vitit Muntarbhorn, of Chulalongkorn University, and Senator Prateep Ungsongtham Hata both noted that the Thai constitution contains provisions guaranteeing the right to education until 12 years of age, banning forced labor, and obligating the state to protect children against violence. Senator Unsongtham Hata also noted that the National Council for Child and Youth Development was established in 1985, linking government to nongovernmental organizations to better coordinate policies of youth organizations. And yet, Dr. Vitit argued that the recent implementation of violent methods of drug enforcement laws as well as the persistence of human trafficking, sexual abuse, and domestic violence have made conflict all too common. In combating such conflict, Dr. Vitit underscored the importance of after school activities and educational curricula that focus on tolerance.
Father Joseph Maier, of the Human Development Foundation in Bangkok, explained that one of the principal problems for youth is the negative impact of adults on many of their lives. In the eyes of many children living in slums, adults are the root of their problems. Additionally, many children view education not as a gateway to a better life but instead as an additional means of adult control. Improving intergenerational trust and combating sexual and physical abuse are vital to improving the lives of these youth, Father Maier maintained. Additionally, providing decent compensation to educators, and formulating curricula that correspond to youth needs are vital to their success, noted Dr. Bhichit Rattakul, former governor of Bangkok. Dr. Rattakul also emphasized the need to provide avenues for recreation through the construction of sports facilities and the establishment of better after-school programs.
Amina Rasul-Bernardo, of the Magbassa Kita Foundation, argued that the Philippines has been headlined in the media as a hostile environment for youth. She noted that majority Muslim metropolitan areas are growing faster than metro Manila and that poverty rates in Muslim communities are significantly higher than in non-Muslim communities. In many areas, then, youth have the choice between becoming engines of progress or joining insurgency groups. The challenge is not only to alleviate poverty for youth but to ensure that they feel included in community development and feel a sense of commitment to their communities.
The greatest challenge, not surprisingly, is to reach those sections of the population who live outside of formal social structures, including victims of sexual and physical abuse, street children, and out of school youth. Felicitas Rixhon, of the Consuelo Foundation, emphasized integrated basic and technical education as a means for improving the life chances of youth. By providing livelihoods for youth, such education programs can greatly reduce the risk of conflict among out of school youth. Angela Desiree Aguirre, of the Ateneo de Manila University, confirmed that according to a series of youth surveys, education, protection, and livelihood were top concerns among youth populations.
In Indonesia, unclear mandates relating to youth at different levels of government remain an obstacle to effective youth programming, according to Dr. Bakti Setiawan of Gadjah Mada University. Dr. Setiawan argued that unless agencies and nongovernmental organizations coordinate better and emphasize capacity building for local institutions, they would be hard-pressed to improve youth programming. Particularly, he noted that food insecurity, child abuse, human trafficking, high dropout rates, and high rates of child labor remain serious areas of concern in Indonesia.
Linking youth to their communities is indeed vital to preventing conflict. In a case study of Jatinangor, a region to which the government relocated a number of educational institutions, Dr. Teti Armiati Argo, of the Bandung Institute of Technology, noted the power of youth to improve a city's environment. In Jatinangor, youth see themselves as true agents of change. The emergence of youth organizations, she argued, was an attempt by students to improve relations between the intellectual communities of the universities in Jatinangor and the local community. These youth serve as a symbol of the potential for youth involvement to improve community relations.
Throughout the two-day conference, participants contended that youth themselves need to be involved much more in the development process. By working with youth to enable them to articulate their needs more effectively, development practitioners can improve the quality of services for youth. This requires establishing intergenerational trust, improving adult-child relations, and providing youth with education that includes a "skills for life" curriculum.