Dr. Richard Curtain

Public Policy Consultant, Curtain Consulting, Melbourne, Australia, April 2007 

Dr. Richard CurtainDr. Richard Curtain is a public policy consultant with Curtain Consulting, based in Melbourne, Australia. A sociologist and demographer by training, his current work includes assignments for UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Region on youth livelihoods. For UNFPA, he recently completed a diagnostic tool titledPutting Young People into National Poverty Reduction Strategies: a Guide to Statistics on Young People in Poverty. He is the author of many publications on youth, including a recent article in the December 2006 edition of Current History, “For Poor Countries’ Youth, Dashed Hopes Signal Danger Ahead.”

We discussed with Dr. Curtain his experience assisting in the development of a national youth policy in Timor-Leste. At the time of the interview, the national policy was still in the process of getting approval by the Council of Ministers.

Youth Policy Toolkit:  What has been your role in formulating the policy and how did you get involved?

Dr. Curtain: I was employed by UNICEF to design and supervise a national survey of young people and to pull together all other relevant data. I was also asked to work with the Secretariat of State for Youth and Sport of the Government of Timor-Leste to prepare a draft of a national youth policy. 

I got involved because I wanted to get into the thick of doing some good policy work on the ground. I had written a number of papers for UN agencies on young people in extreme poverty and the case for investing in young people as part of a national poverty reduction strategy. These made me keen to do some “hands-on” work, away from desktop analysis.

My opportunity to work in Timor-Leste arose through a long-term interest in that country, as a supporter of its independence from my time as a graduate student at The Australian National University in the 1970s! I found out that UNICEF was looking for a consultant to work on youth policy and I approached them while I was visiting Dili to help set up a system for disbursing funds for a philanthropic foundation.

Youth Policy Toolkit: Why is it important that Timor-Leste have a national youth policy?

Dr. Curtain: A national youth policy is crucial to Timor-Leste’s future because one in three people in the adult population are aged 15 to 24 years. This high share of the adult population points to a classic “youth bulge.” In a post-conflict country where the economy is weak and government capacity limited, the youth bulge suggests that the potential for social conflict is high.

This scenario has been borne out in the period after I completed my assignment for UNICEF. From April 2006 and continuing into 2007, life in Timor-Leste, and specifically in the capital, Dili, has been disrupted by gangs of young males, as young as 10 years of age. Despite the presence of foreign peacekeepers and international police since mid-2006, peace still has not returned. News reports of warring gangs and gang violence are commonplace. In particular, clashes between martial arts groups of mostly young men are blamed for the violence, sometimes resulting in deaths and always increasing fears and insecurity of the general population.

Youth Policy Toolkit: In your recent article for Current History, “For Poor Countries’ Youth, Dashed Hopes Signal Danger Ahead,” you write, “the view of young people as critical assets for lifting economies and societies out of poverty offers the most potential for change, yet it has gained the least attention.” Why is this so and how did you address this problem in Timor-Leste?

Dr. Curtain: My analysis of the focus on young people in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers showed that most policymakers viewed young people as vulnerable, for example adolescent girls, or as a threat, for example unemployed youth. However, few Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers proposed policies to build up young people as positive assets. Many UN agencies also have a narrow view of young people, highlighting their vulnerability. The challenge in writing an evidence-based national youth policy was to go beyond narrow and negative stereotypes of young people and to understand the world from their own perspective.

So in Timor-Leste, we started from a much more positive perspective. In the national youth survey, we asked young people about their own capabilities and their access to power resources. The survey was designed to enable young people to rate their access to economic, social, political, and information-based assets, their perceptions of personal security, the quality of their education, and assessments of their current and future prospects.

This emphasis on the positive carried over into the draft policy, which highlights the value of government supporting young people’s collective endeavors. One specific proposal is to encourage young people’s sporting and cultural organizations to link into the government’s national poverty reduction strategy. This is to be done by funding them to undertake simple but important tasks such as distributing bednets and getting rid of stagnant water as part of a campaign to reduce malaria.

Youth Policy Toolkit: Timor-Leste is a “post-conflict” country. How did this influence the policy development process?

Dr. Curtain: In general, I think that the government and international agencies such as the World Bank failed badly to incorporate an appreciation of the vulnerabilities the population has been experiencing. Little attention was paid to social protection policies, for example, to ensure that people had enough to live on in the poorest country in Asia.

In relation to the national youth policy, we focused on ways to integrate young people into the new structures being set up. On the face of it, young people were the ‘lost generation’ – they were educated under the Indonesians, with many gaining tertiary education. However, the new government specifically excluded them from government service by mandating that all official business being conducted in Portuguese. Finding ways to incorporate young people into the mainstream institutions was the big challenge.

Youth Policy Toolkit: Your Current History article also discusses how governments tend to see young people in need of protection against problems such as early pregnancy and HIV infection. To what extent does the policy in Timor-Leste address these reproductive health issues?

Dr. Curtain: Timor-Leste has one of the highest adolescent fertility rates in the world— 177 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years in 2004 and it is rising, it was 130 per 1,000 in 2000. However, the draft national youth policy did not address reproductive health issues directly as there was already a new reproductive health policy in place. The draft policy highlighted the need to coordinate policies to reduce poverty among young people. The policy proposes using as key performance measures the youth-oriented indicators of the Millennium Development Goals (youth employment, literacy), and key poverty reduction indicators (improvements in food security, rural incomes). The additional indicator of the adolescent fertility rate is also proposed.

Youth Policy Toolkit: What were some of the successful approaches you used in drafting the policy?

Dr. Curtain: It was important to give young people opportunities to express their views about their situation and about how they wanted to make a positive contribution. The national youth survey, based on a random sample of 1,100 youths, was a powerful way to provide evidence of young people’s attitudes to rural livelihoods, and the specific attitudes of young women in relation to their choices.

Also, an important evidence source was the results of focus groups of young people held in all the major regional centers as well as in the capital city. These discussions highlighted a number of concerns that the survey did not tap. This applied especially to how girls and young unmarried women were viewed and treated by the community and the constraints these views imposed on the options available to them.

Youth Policy Toolkit: What were some of the big challenges you faced in developing the policy?

Dr. Curtain: The biggest challenges came from a lack of strong interest from the government in tackling young people as a cross-cutting issue. The new ministries operated as silos and they saw the Secretariat of State for Youth and Sport as a junior ministry with few resources.

The World Bank, despite an interest in training youth leaders through the Leadership for Economic Development program, had a narrow view of only supporting young people as individual job seekers. The World Bank office in Timor-Leste objected to one of the main proposals of the draft national youth policy—to set up a national fund for youth to provide a guarantee of future funding for youth organizations to engage directly with the government’s national poverty strategy.

Youth Policy Toolkit: If you were doing it all over again, what might you do differently?

Dr. Curtain: The big problem was lack of a youth focus in the government. This has changed now with the ongoing civil unrest, and the key role played by youth gangs in this. But, the response by the government in late 2006/early 2007 has been ad hoc and short-term—providing funding to build youth centers and sporting facilities. These facilities cater mostly to young males. A focus on cementing ties among mainly young males will backfire if it only reinforces an “us against them” attitude. Policies to link young people into the wider community are still missing—the national youth policy is still in draft form and has not yet been adopted by the government!

The pressures are strong to write up a policy that confirms existing arrangements and makes at best only small changes. Forging a new policy direction requires, in hindsight, much more ground work with the key stakeholders. Providing good evidence is part of this, but this may not be enough. Lobbying key politicians, using another form of evidence in the form of stories and anecdotes, can play a valuable role. Responding to opportunities as they come up to bring home the need for a new policy direction is also part of it. But, this can mean big time lags.

In the end, it is waiting until the time is right—when policymakers can see that the old approach is not working, and one or more of them are willing to take on the role of champions of the proposed new approach and push their colleagues into accepting a new direction.

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Contact Information for Dr. Curtain:

Dr. Richard Curtain

Mailing Address: PO Box 1128, Hampton North Australia 3186

Telephone: 613 9521 8293

Fax: 613 9521 6808

Email: richard@curtain-consulting.net.au 

Website: www.curtain-consulting.net.au