Rachel Litster, Global Accountability Manager, Restless Development, rach@restlessdevelopment.org, @RachTLitster

Change rarely begins at the top. Global problems require the power of people to take local action. I’ve witnessed countless young people use this power. Young people like Eva.

Eva, a 16-year-old girl from Tanzania, launched a campaign to provide clean water for her community. For three months, she called on decision makers to lead by example in turning the Global Goals into reality. And now her leaders are starting to listen.

With the backing of 150,000 signatures for her petition, Eva met the prime minister of Tanzania in June to address access to clean water.

This opportunity, the power of young people holding leaders to account, is one we cannot afford to ignore.

Too big to ignore

The world is currently home to the largest global youth population in history. There are 3.5 billion people on the planet under the age of 30. That’s over half of the world’s population, people who will be disproportionately affected by poverty, inequality and climate change.

The biggest mistake we can make is to not harness the collective power these young people have to reduce global poverty. Only once we acknowledge their transformative power can we ensure the implementation of a new global development framework that truly “leaves no one behind”.

No accountability without accessible data

But we continue to live in a world where young people are cut off from decision-making processes on global issues, such as poverty, inequality and climate change. On top of this, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (the predecessor to the Sustainable Development Goals) were criticised for the limited accessible data they produced for citizens and governments to effectively understand and monitor progress towards their targets.

Without citizen, and especially youth, engagement in generating and accessing data to monitor progress, and the opportunity to effectively engage with decision-makers on this, we run the risk of governments yet again failing to deliver on their promises.

Despite these daunting challenges, most governments are formally committed to increasing accountability to citizens. They acknowledge that the participation of traditionally excluded groups, including young people, is central to achieving this. So how do we go about shifting power structures so that young people are included?

Empowering the youth

When young people are supported with the skills, data and networks to hold decision-makers to account for their commitments, they can play a vital role in ensuring their full implementation.

Young people bring unique skills to monitoring development: not only are they at the forefront of using social media and innovative monitoring tools, but they can also be effective ‘infomediaries’ (translators and sharers of information), and create new monitoring approaches.

When young people play an active role in holding decision-makers to their commitments, there is a window and opportunity to connect power to youth and youth to power, recasting the relationship between decision-makers and young people.

We should be advocating for this. Not just because we think it’s a good idea, or because it’s right, but because young people are proving that citizen monitoring of development targets sees lasting results. I know, I witness it happen every day.

Young people are having an impact

Stories like Eva’s are one of many. Take Natalie, a 23-year-old from rural Kenya. On discovering that information about the Global Goals was not reaching her community, she decided to bring the conversation from the conference room directly to villages like hers.

“We sought to simplify the information so that it could be better understood, especially by young people and communities,” she said.

“We are engaging young people on simple, day-to-day accountability practices, as well as analysing village development plans and how they link up to national development plans and align with Global Goal targets”.

Natalie is now supporting a network of young people to monitor progress towards goal 5, which focuses on achieving gender equality.

Specifically, the network is reaching out to local communities to collect data on early and forced child marriage, an issue impacting young women and girls in Kenya.

And last year in northern Uganda, 40 young people generated community-level data to hold district-level decision-makers to account on development commitments related to health, child marriage and employment.

In the span of six months, a new ordinance was enacted restricting times when alcohol can be purchased; a bylaw on construction and use of latrines was passed; a district community development officer co-developed an awareness-raising programme on child marriage; and decision-makers noted a marked improvement in their perception of young people’s abilities to lead development.

If we could channel the energy of everyone like Eva, Natalie and the young people in Uganda, imagine the collective impact this could achieve in ensuring governments remain committed to reducing global poverty.
The Global Goals are the most ambitious set of development targets we’ve ever seen. This sort of ambition requires new ways of thinking that involves everyone, including young people, in their delivery, monitoring and accountability. It’s time for the world to wake up to the power of youth.

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