Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

What’s missing from Australia’s Foreign Policy?

A Youth Strategy

Policy Innovation Hub
The Machinery of Government
6 min readApr 20, 2018


by Elise Stephenson

The ASEAN Special Summit wrapped up last month, and Australia moved on to the next big opportunity to shape international relations on our home soil: the Commonwealth Games. Both opportunities are significant milestones for Australia, but also have represented unique opportunities for Australian youth.

The #ASEANinAUS Special Summit provided a unique opportunity for youth entrepreneurs to be part of funded events specifically building the capacity and relations in the region. One month later, reinforced by the wrapping of another major international event on Australian soil, the Commonwealth Games, I have had time to reflect on young people’s place in forums and events like it.

With agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade now evidencing Women in Leadership and Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategies, where is Australia’s Youth Strategy for engaging with the world?

At events for the ASEAN Special Summit attendees learned that Indonesia’s Youth Enterprise Council HAS 6 million youth members. The Malaysian Association of ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs (MAAYE) pioneers how youth, government and business can work together to further the economic development and regional relationships in the region. Example after example highlighted how youth have a role not just in creating opportunities and people-to-people links with other countries, but in informing and advising government on new and innovative ways of doing so too.

This is reinforced and reflected by what is happening within the Commonwealth. We have Commonwealth Youth Councils, Youth Programmes, and Youth Networks all forming important parts of international diplomacy and collaboration. As a member of the Commonwealth Youth Gender Equality Network, I can testify to the value these networks and strategies bring to informing international decision-making, from contributing at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to turning their eye towards events like the Commonwealth Games.

Future planning

Seeing as our current generation of youth is the largest we have ever seen in the world, representing nearly half of the population, should we be making more of an attempt to engage and listen to youth? 60 per cent of the world’s youth population aged 15–24 reside in our own Asia Pacific region. 213 million youth (aged 15–34) reside in the ASEAN region. While little research exists that places an economic value on the work, capabilities and capacities of youth, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of the value that young people bring to international relations. With rising sea levels, regional instability and shifting power relations, and an aging population, now more than ever is the time to ensure we are properly engaging and utilising youth across the region and the world.

DFAT already has a track record for valuing the soft power and public diplomacy potential of young people through its New Colombo Plan program. As a New Colombo Plan Scholar in its inaugural year, I can attest to the strong potential of young people to foster and build relationships and relevance within the region. Since my stint in Hong Kong, I have been able to work with young people, businesses and organisations across Japan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Taiwan. Some of my closest relationships overseas are based on business collaborations through the enterprise I co-founded on my return to Australia, or my role in the Commonwealth Youth Gender Equality Network. My experience is different to established business and government leaders who represent Australia internationally, but I believe it can be just as valuable. Those I am meeting and building networks with now will be the leaders and influencers in the future. I can also see what is happening now through a different lens, and therefore can take note of the variety of ways in which we could add to our soft power, grow our economic relations, or build on our people-to-people links.

DFAT has already recognised the value of youth to Australia’s foreign policy and international relations, the next logical step is formalising this in a Youth Strategy. Much like the Women in Leadership or Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategies, the Youth Strategy could be an opportunity give young Australians a role in informing and advising government across a variety of issues, including those pertinent to Australian international affairs. It will also provide an opportunity to reflect on the specific barriers and challenges experienced by youth across the region and the world — with youth frequently forming some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups in society and young women in many societies facing increased barriers to safety and security, education, economic independence and political participation than other groups.

Despite this, young people are also providing much of the innovation across the world too. At the ASEAN social enterprise event I attended, one youth participant from Myanmar had developed an enterprise providing vital waste management and recycling services in Yangon, in an absence of government services. Another had pioneered changes in the sexual and reproductive health space in Vietnam to improve health outcomes and educate young people where traditional forms of education were proving ineffective. Yet another again was transforming the entire fishing industry across Indonesia to increase transparency and improve the pay and circumstances of farmers, many of whom are in geographically isolated and remote regions, and part of diverse indigenous communities.

According to a 2014 study by Youth, 62% of countries have a youth policy. Queensland and South Australia have a Youth Strategy. Western Australia is developing their new Strategy, and multiple city councils around the country have Youth Strategies, from Hobart to Fairfield. While Australia has had historic national policies under the Rudd government, the landscape is clear to make way for the next iteration, particularly with reference to a Youth Strategy for international affairs.

Because the Commonwealth Youth Programme already provides technical assistance for national and regional youth policies, the way is open for innovative leadership to seize this opportunity to affect real change and inclusion of young people in government. With the ASEAN Special Summit over, and the Commonwealth Games wrapping up, I keep wondering what opportunities Australia and its youth are missing out on by not recognising and formalising a strategy to include them in our international affairs.

If anyone can help us navigate the rise of China and India, power shifting within the region, and a rapidly changing economic, diplomatic and security landscape, young people who are increasingly being forced to work innovatively can do it. When your cohort is prophesised to work in five different careers over 17 different jobs in a lifetime, you get used to dealing with uncertainty. When your cohort knows that over half of young people in schools today will end up working in new job types that don’t yet exist, you hone your skills in identifying and capitalising on opportunities, and transferring your skills to take advantage of whatever comes your way. When your cohort is not effectively engaged in decision-making over issues which affect them, a Youth Strategy engaging them for the future is the first step forward.

If Australia wants to be a significant, relevant leader in the region and the world, engaging youth now is critical.



Elise Stephenson is a PhD candidate at the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Her research explores the experiences and effects of women leaders in Australian international-facing agencies across foreign affairs, defence, immigration and policing. Elise was an inaugural New Colombo Plan Scholar of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2014–2015, with considerable experience working on women’s leadership initiatives throughout Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Elise is also a United Nations Australia Association Community Awardee (2016) and Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society for work creating gender-based violence prevention strategies and advancing young women’s empowerment in Australia.

Follow Elise on Twitter˚



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