From gun control marches in the United States to impassioned climate change speeches on the global stage of the UN, youth are leading the charge to hold governments accountable and address our biggest challenges. Despite the magnitude of this responsibility, however, they remain optimistic. The Gates Foundation found young people (ages 12-24) are in fact more optimistic about their personal and political futures than their elders – and optimism is highest among youth from lower- and middle-income countries.

In 2018, a group of civil society networks and foundations came together to capture this optimism in an effort to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator champions 26 young innovators from around the world, providing funding, technical support, access to networks and mentoring to support their work testing and implementing solutions to achieve the SDGs in their communities.

Looking at the successes of the pilot programme, we found four lessons in how to unleash the power and drive of the world’s youth to achieve the SDGs at local, national and global levels.

1. Find opportunities to test and explore.

Dumisani Kaliati came to the Youth Action Accelerator convinced drones could improve access to healthcare in Malawi. His project FlyingThings evaluates data from pilot tests in Africa’s largest drone corridor in Kasungu, Malawi – the only one of its kind dedicated to humanitarian operations. He estimates drones can reduce the delivery time for blood samples for HIV tests and time-sensitive supplies from 11 days to less than 30 minutes. He’s now testing the delivery of medical diagnostic tools, such as HIV and pregnancy tests, to remote parts of the country.

2. Harness and share data.

Through Datos Para Todas (Data for Everyone), Ximena Arrieta works with feminist organizations in Mexico to improve the quality of data on gender violence. This includes building the capacity of organizations to collect and analyse data, as well as usin visualization and digital security techniques for gender violence prevention and responses, even in volatile settings.

Limitations in data access and analysis slow down our mission to achieve the SDGs – and no one knows this better than young innovators.

“While the world is seeing a deep digital transformation, we have yet to nurture a culture where data is used to improve people’s lives. In Madagascar, particularly, it is hard for citizens to understand the place of data in development or policymaking,” says Goalkeeper Fabienne Rafidiharinirina. To address the challenge, she established a YouTube channel to foster a data culture in Madagascar’s Malagasy society. Since January 2019, her channel DataMad has collected and publishing data under a Creative Commons license on OpenStat Madagascar, the first open data platform by civil society in the country. Next, she will test innovative data visualization techniques to generate content to engage the public and policymakers on priorities related to SDG implementation.

These projects show a “data for social good” revolution is within reach if we invest time and resources in young leaders harnessing the transformative potential of technology.

3. Build engagement through personal stories.

In a hyper-informed world, individual stories are critical for change.

“The sharing of experiences can foster equality and equity for the storyteller – no matter how marginalized they are," says Dumiso Gatsha of Botswana. Through the Queer Awakening initiative, Dumiso documents the experiences of LGBTIQ+ youth to challenge intolerance in social and political spaces and build intellectual resources needed for LGBTIQ+ youth to reshape prevalent narratives in Botswana and beyond.

Another Goalkeeper on the continent is similarly translating complex ideas into accessible messages to inspire empathy and motivate action, particularly by policymakers. Hope Jeremiah Offor curates qualitative data about the sexual and reproductive needs and rights of youth in Nigeria, creating evidence-based advocacy campaigns with the goal of delivering comprehensive, youth-friendly sexual health services and policies.

“In Nigeria, we lose 96 girls every day to unsafe abortion,” says Hope. “Everybody, including the government, chooses to remain blind to this fact. I will not.”

The Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator provides funding and support to 26 young innovators from around the world
Image: Civicus.org

4. Prioritize partnerships.

More than one-third of SDG targets highlight youth empowerment, participation and wellbeing – and young people are not only leading the quest for solutions but also forging partnerships to sustain and amplify their efforts.

Concerned about gaps in the education system, Wilson Villones created CheckMySchool, an app enabling communities in the Philippines to participate in decision-making about the functioning and governance of local schools. CheckMySchool operates in 893 schools across the country, in collaboration with local volunteers and civil society organizations. In April, a new partnership with the Department of Education paved the way for national uptake. Viollones’ team is now developing South-South cooperation initiatives to prepare to replicate the programme in Nigeria.

Filipino children recite an oath of allegiance to the country on the first day of the school year in Parañaque, Manila.
Children at a school in Parañaque, Manila.
Image: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

In a similar vein, Natasha Chaudhary’s Health Over Stigma campaign tackles deep-rooted cultural taboos about the sexual and reproductive rights of women in India, securing a commitment from the Delhi Medical Council to provide safe and non-judgemental sexual health services to unmarried women. Spurred by personal testimonies of fear and discrimination from more than 750 unmarried women in the city, the campaign is working to secure a code of conduct across public and private health providers in New Delhi and other parts of the country.

“We have approached our sexual health from a place of fear, and we could not hold service providers accountable, with no bargaining power as a community. We need to flip this by organizing unmarried women as a collective and move the onus and accountability on medical institutions,” says Natasha.

While most startups would shy away from working with bureaucratic agencies, young innovators have made government and parastatal agencies partners – thereby prioritizing long-term impact, scale and integration.

A Call to Action

This is clearly a call for everyone – policymakers, philanthropies, businesses, civil society organizations and concerned citizens – to do more to support youth innovators. With its international scope, the Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator provides a rich foundation for us to work on more local and national iterations of platforms, as well, leading us closer to implementation of the SDGs.

As Goalkeeper Nikhil Taneja, who runs a startup making social content for Indian youth, says, “Working with other young activists from across the world helped me realize that the issues that I am grappling with are not regional or local specific problems – they are human problems. We are not fighting this individually. We are in this together.”