The UN Sustainable Development Goals: 5 Tips for Engaging Youth on Digital Platforms

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“The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies also in the hands of today's younger generation who will pass the torch to future generations.” Sustainable Development 2030 Agenda, paragraph 53

Lerato Kgalamono, Nathi Fani and Celeste Khumalo (Former Miss Teen SA) proudly stand in line exercising their democratic right by voting in the South Africa's fifth general election
Lerato Kgalamono, Nathi Fani and Celeste Khumalo (Former Miss Teen SA) proudly stand in line exercising their democratic right by voting in the South Africa's fifth general election
Photo: Valentina Nicol

There’s been a lot of discussion about how best to engage youth in the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) The word ‘youth’ is mentioned 5 times in the SDGs (SDG4, SDG8, and SDG13), but the words “children,” “young,” and “youth” are mentioned 33 times altogether. Because of the cross-cutting and intersectional design of the SDGs, many of the goals, targets and indicators address the needs of youth living in instability and poverty, even if not mentioned explicitly. Goals like education (SDG4) and climate change (SDG13) directly affect youth outcomes. Without access to education or if one is confined to living in a community ravaged by weather-related disasters, it is unlikely they would be able to escape poverty.

Youth have the most to gain (and lose) in the SDGs. Most youth worldwide don’t know about the SDGs, but they care about the issues. Engaging them online is the first and most important step to bridging this gap.

What this means for us in international development is that in order for the SDGs to be achieved, we must put youth engagement front and center in SDG implementation.

One of the most radical paradigm shifts that the SDGs requires of us is a more inclusive development model, where people who are directly affected by poverty and deprivation are central in finding solutions. This suggests that youth must be invited, listened to, and cultivated as consistent contributors to international development efforts.The most effective way to do this (cost effective and otherwise) is through digital engagement, with a strong focus on social media. For youth especially, when they speak of “community” they could mean anything from the street where they live to a Facebook group that they belong to. These online communities mean just as much, if not more, to them in many cases. Therefore, we as international development professionals have to adjust our “community building” efforts and take the lion’s share of our youth engagement efforts online.

5 Tips for Engaging Youth on Digital Platforms

1. Go Where Youth Already Are

Because the international development field is one where bespoke solutions are encouraged and generally yield better results, we have a tendency to want to “build” platforms that we believe are contextually appropriate and then wonder why youth online engagement with our platforms are so anemic. Building myriad platforms from scratch to engage youth is costly and unnecessary. Youth are already online. They already use apps and platforms that they are happy with, so why not find them where they are and get your message out in an online platform that they already like?

The internet is a place where people, especially youth, run out of patience quickly. Spend your valuable time using existing platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) more effectively rather than building something new and then seeking users. It’s a far better return on your time and money investment. Moreover, you’re likely to see vastly increased engagement.

2. Let Youth Determine the Rules

Part of building an organic and vibrant community is allowing space for the community to form its own shape, complete with its own vernacular, idiosyncrasies and social hierarchies, similar to real life. Of course, you want to create a space that is inclusive and safe for all participants but too often, digital sites and platforms for engagement in the international development field feature some faceless moderator who determines the fate of comments seeing the light of day, sometime days later, if ever. This thwarts the flow of communication. Cut out the middle man and let the conversation flow. The faceless moderator’s time is better spent deleting abusive or untoward comments, rather than moderating the entire conversation. This is how online communities thrive.

3. Authenticity over Content

Encourage a community with consistent, authentic conversation rather than concentrating on content, promotion of your mission, or your brand. None of this really resonates with the majority of youth.

Studies show that youth value authenticity including explicit admission of some of your organization’s mistakes when they arise, far more than sleek content which they are inherently skeptical of because it reads like an ad. Organizations that are focused on their brand or focused on publicizing their work will fall flat with youth. Youth are generally averse to what seem like ads. Promote real, human conversation (flaws and all) to promote a vibrant online community. This includes showing your organizational stumbles every now and then.

4. Focus on influencers, meaning peers, not celebrities

It is one thing to get a well-known celebrity to endorse your organizations and projects, but entirely another (and more effective, really) to have peers endorse and encourage a community of concerned and active youth.

Reach out to peers that have large groups of friends that are active on social media platforms. And “active,” means more than posting about international development. Active meaning “generally active” and vocal about a variety of topics including fashion, music, politics, school, etc. Find ways to encourage these influencers to follow you online and contribute to your platforms regularly and enthusiastically. This could mean contests, reaching out to them to write blogs, featuring them in articles and most importantly, providing them with the space to self-promote without totally upending your goals. Youth want to be seen and heard, particularly online. If you provide them more opportunities for exposure, they will reward you with bringing their many followers along.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Survey, a survey of millennials from 181 different countries, young people are deeply concerned with ending poverty, inequality and lack, more so than their predecessors. Tap into that concern by letting the influencers disseminate your development message and then grow online communities for you organically.

5. Think Mobile First

Mobile phone ownership has risen dramatically in the last few years, particularly in Africa where 90% of people own mobile phones. Smartphone usage is also increasing as well, with countries like South Africa and Nigeria reporting that roughly a third of its citizenry own smartphones. And the majority of those smartphone owners are youth who access the internet almost exclusively via their phones.

What this means for your digital platforms and social media engagement strategy is that you need to think mobile first. When creating content, conceptualize your project or program vision as if the only way that youth would access it is via their phone. Create digital experiences that are compelling and can emotionally resonate with users through phones, with the desktop experience a distant second.

Also consider if it makes sense for your organization to create an app that allows users to access your sites and all of your social media pages quickly and in one place. Youth want to access things easily and smoothly. Why not put it all in one place?

Another major benefit to this is the icon of your app residing on their phones serves as a tacit reminder and advertisement for your organization. Make your mobile presence easy to see, access and remember for youth users and they will reward you with increased engagement and meaningful dialogue that will advance the SDG agenda.

By implementing these five tips, you’ll be well on your way to beefing up your digital presence and encouraging youth to engage in the wider SDG and poverty eradication discussions. Empower youth to participate and change the world. After all, it’s theirs.

Dr.Tricia Callender, Ph.D is the President and CEO of Spanner Strategies, LLC, a digital campaign strategy firm with offices in New York and Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached at

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