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UNICEF Is Enabling Youths As Agents Of Change Through Technology

U-Report uses technology to enable youth participation in high-level policymaking.

U-Report operates in about 33 countries, including developed countries such as the UK, France and New Zealand. (Photo credit: Ueslei Marcelino)

The archaic adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’ no longer carries weight in today’s world of instant connectivity. On mobile phones, Facebook, and Viber, millions of young people are visible and very much vocal. U-Report, using an approach akin to social media, wants to channel and motivate these voices, especially the marginalised and deprived, to be agents of change via a safe space.

Conceived in 2010, U-Report was the brainchild of then-UNICEF representative in Uganda Dr Sharad Sapra, who saw the potential of the local ‘generation text’ in speaking out and being heard. There’s a myth that people in developing countries do not own mobile phones but phone penetration in developing countries was in fact almost 70 percent five years ago, as UNICEF reports. And once young Ugandans decided to register on the free SMS-based crowd-sourcing system, they would receive weekly polls on important social and development issues that really hit home, such as female genital mutilation and childhood pregnancy.

The data collected by each week’s polls is aggregated and analysed by UNICEF and its partners — homegrown NGOs and youth organisations — to provide immediate feedback to the responders. It is also used to alert political leaders and government functionaries at various levels about the quality of social and economic services in a particular area. Thus, the project brings the voice and observations of young people at the grassroots level into the highest levels of national discourse and policy-making.

So does the ‘U’ in U-Report stand for ‘UNICEF’, ‘Uganda’ or is it even possibly a play on the word ‘youth’? According to James Powell, global U-Report lead, it is ‘U’ as in an individual and how you would say ‘you’ in a text message.

Today, the tool operates in about 33 countries, including developed countries such as the UK, France and New Zealand. The platform has a growing number of active U-Reporters, which currently stands at over three million worldwide. The average age is 15 to 24 and almost 40 percent are female. Depending on the country, the mobile technology tool is tailored to how young people consume media. “In places such as Thailand, where U-Report recently launched, we push for downloads of the mobile app. In Myanmar, U-Report is solely focused on Facebook Messenger,” says Powell, who is currently based in Bangkok to accelerate take-up of U-Report in this region.

He adds: “Our primary objective now is to continue to grow. We believe this is a valuable service, whether it is young people speaking out about something affecting them, from bullying to climate change, or when UNICEF and our partners need to disseminate critical life-saving information to a wide range of people, especially those in remote areas.”

The three-way communication programme remains a promising method to monitor important social, development and emergency issues, as a spur for more responsible and responsive governance. Technology companies and telecoms companies continue to be involved in the technical aspects of U-Report.

“Of course, we’re always looking to improve our technology. We do need additional resources and expertise to support and coordinate the setting up of U-Report in different nations and maintain existing ones. We think it can reach 10 to 20 million users, or more,” says Powell.

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