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Rural Transformation Still a Challenge for SE Asia: ASEAN-EU Youth Forum

Display Date: 10/27/17

Jakarta. Ron Hartman, country director for Indonesia at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD, said younger generations play key role in achieving food security and good rural transformation, and their voices should be included in policymaking processes.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day youth forum on agriculture at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat in Jakarta on Wednesday (25/10), Hartman said the event seeks to highlight the opportunities and potentials the agriculture and agribusiness sectors have for young people.

"It's important to give young people a voice. Generally, decisions are made for young people. What this event tries to do is to make sure young people themselves can have a say on what policies affect them and what opportunities they can develop," he said.

The Asean-EU Youth Forum saw in attendance youth representatives from Asean member countries and the European Union.

According to Hartman, attracting investment and promoting activities in rural areas remain a development challenge for all countries in Southeast Asia.

"It really depends on what policies are in place to encourage good rural transformation, to make sure young people have employment opportunities, incentives to start agribusiness activities and to remain in rural areas," he explained.

The region's agricultural sector has been recognized as one of its most important drivers of economic growth. However, along with rapid urbanization, increasing population and aging farmers, rural transformation in Southeast Asia faces a unique set of challenges.

The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) data indicate that the average age of farmers in Indonesia is 45 years and above. In Malaysia, more than half of the country's farmers are aged between 45 and 64.

As Southeast Asian farmers are getting older, attracting more youth to invest, engage and apply modern technologies in the agricultural sector becomes an increasingly pertinent issue in order to prevent food production problems in the future.

"Fifty years have passed with diplomats and negotiators creating Asean. Now we want young people to be the creators of Asean, and to be able to move forward in the next 50 years," said Phasporn Sangasubana, Thailand's permanent representative to the association.

Year 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the regional bloc.

Low youth participation in agriculture is often tied to the views that the sector entails a dead-end, unattractive career path. According to Hartman, young people will need a supporting environment that facilitates capacity-building, access to land and start-up capital, as well as role models and business mentors.

"There's still work to do to ensure that young people have their voice heard in different policymaking processes, to integrate all the possible voices from all sides of society," EU ambassador to Asean Francisco Fontan said.

According to Sangasubana, highlighting opportunities will kick-start efforts to encourage young people to return to rural areas.

"All national governments [in Asean] are trying to give opportunities through equal access for young people to be educated, access to society so that they can come back to their hometowns to develop their own local communities," she said, adding that various stakeholders are working to make the agricultural sector more resilient, so that it becomes something "worth investing money, time and energy."

The region's youth need to be backed in order for them to support their respective communities.

"Young people have the ability and curiosity to be the agents of change for rural transformation. They need support," Hartman said.

The United Nations General Assembly meetings on Oct. 16 revealed that the international community was not on the track to achieve one of its 2030 goals — to eradicate eradicate hunger and malnutrition, which is closely linked to agriculture, food systems and the empowerment of rural communities. The Sustainable Development Goals, or 2030 Agenda, were adopted in 2015, but the number of chronically undernourished people increased to 815 million in 2016, compared with 777 million a year before.

Asean countries, including Indonesia, have adopted the Asean Integrated Food Security Framework and Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security (2015-20) in 2015.

Asean-EU Cooperation

The youth forum is one of two programs within the Asean-EU partnership that focus on the younger generations. The EU placed more than $11 million on the Support to Higher Education in the Asean Region (Share), which finances Asean university students interested in academic exchanges within the region.

"The potential for doing more in other sectors, looking at young people, is there," EU's Fontan said.

Both Sangasubana and Fontan agreed that as both sides are currently working toward upgrading to a strategic partnership, their relations are now akin to a two-way street.

"Prosperity and development in Asean is prosperity and development in Europe. We see it as a win-win situation," Fontan said.

The two regional blocs have been interacting with each other on the economic, trade and political levels for more than four decades.

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