What can we learn from campaigns run by the world’s children and young people?

Save the Children’s Patrick Watt reports back from some INGO soul searching on ‘Engaging a New Generation’

There’s nothing new about children and youth being involved in movements for change, from the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa, to the earlier and more hopeful chapters of the Arab Spring. But what feels different now is that young people are increasingly creating and leading campaigns themselves. Many of these campaigns are being pulled together very quickly, using digital channels, with limited resources and little formal governance. Usually this is being done by young people who may have little formal experience of campaigning, but maybe for that reason, are less jaded, and more willing to take risks.

There are open questions about how durable many of these campaigns are in terms of impact. Some movements emerge in response to a specific outrage, and can subside almost as quickly, once political and media attention moves on. Others lose momentum in the transition from mobilisation to organisation. For example, the March for Our Lives campaign for gun control didn’t secure its objectives in the US mid-terms in Florida (at the same time, the history of campaigning shows that you can lose battles but win the war, and March for Our Lives may well have all sorts of long-term indirect benefits in fostering civic engagement).

But what struck me most was that, of all the examples shared in the conference – from student-led road safety campaigning in Bangladesh, to Australian children campaigning against single use plastics – none was initiated, driven or significantly supported by traditional NGOs.

A group of us spent time at the conference discussing the searching questions such campaigns raise about how we’re approaching change, and working with children and young people to make it happen.

A few key themes came through:

Logos and egos – the widespread preoccupation with NGO brand and profile in campaigns can be a major turn-off for many child and youth campaigners. Big, brand-conscious NGOs find it especially hard to leave egos and logos at the door, but will increasingly struggle to be heard by young people unless they do so.

Agility – many of the most powerful child- and youth-led campaigns are fast and improvisational, testing different approaches as they go along, to see what works best. At least in their initial stages, they’re light on governance and decision-making, and are not shackled to a rigid strategy. In contrast, NGO campaigns tend to overestimate how much we’re in control of the agenda we’re seeking to influence. Big organisations tend to create slow and difficult decision-making, which can paralyse the campaigning muscle.

Support, incubate and release – it may be that organisations with revenues in the hundreds of millions and many thousands of staff cannot easily become agile, movement-based campaigners. But our advocacy-led campaigns can often be a powerful complement to grass roots activism, and we do have lots of skills, resources and connections that can be useful to child-led campaigns. One suggestion, from Change.org, was that all INGOs should create youth organisations, where they agree on the goals, give them some start-up resources, and then let go. Save the Children Norway has done something very like this, but such a bold approach is still the exception rather than the rule.

Campaigning with, and about people – many of the most effective child- and youth-led campaigns are led by people directly affected by the issues on which they’re campaigning: from movements to confront gender-based violence on Indian campuses, to Black Lives Matter in the US. This gives the campaigns integrity and authenticity. Campaigning rooted in personal experience can also have its own shortcomings, if single-issue campaigning becomes isolated from wider movements for justice. However, the ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra does challenge INGOs. Too often our campaigns (and programmes) have limited input from the people who are the focus of the desired change. Coalitions and partnerships are frequently an afterthought, rather than a starting point.

Many INGOs are mobilising adult campaigners in one place (usually wealthier countries) on issues affecting people in another (poorer, more marginal) place. Where they do engage children, it’s often easiest to do this amongst the educated, networked and mobile. Solidarity campaigning between people of relative privilege, and people who are more affected by an issue, has a valid place in the campaign ecosystem. But any campaign to achieve progressive change will only ring true if it models that change, by redistributing power and voice to those who currently have less of it.

Protection and voice – there’s a tension between the right of children to participate, and have a voice, and their right to be protected (by adults). The Syria conflict began with the torture and murder of a teenage boy who campaigned against the government. There are plenty of bad examples of children being exploited in campaigning movements, and exposed to personal risk, such as the recent sexual abuse scandal involving youth campaigning networks at the UN Organisations that support child-led campaigns need to provide political cover, stay the course, and ensure robust safeguarding systems where their staff are working with children.

Campaigning space in programmes – operational INGOs like Save the Children that run programmes around the world have the potential to engage many more young people through their programmes, than through their traditional campaign activities, with the added advantage that many of those young people are directly affected by the issues of the campaign. Community level engagement on issues like FGM, child marriage, and disability, which require deep social shifts, is often a critical complement to campaigns for legislative and policy change, and helps to foster a culture of rights and accountability at the local level.

The question for INGOs is less and less how we create campaigning waves, and more how we ride them. A growing demographic youth bulge in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East; a global expansion in secondary education; technological change; and rapid urbanisation all mean that child- and youth-led campaigning movements are likely to grow in diversity and influence. This is a campaigning future that should excite anyone who cares about economic, social and environmental justice.

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5 Responses to “What can we learn from campaigns run by the world’s children and young people?”
  1. Geoff

    As a ‘former’ oxfamer working globally with young people, the most stifling force that both held back Oxfam’s ability to work with young people and also to support youth movements was the hierarchical decision making and compliance structures within the organization. Supporting Youth movements is not expensive from a program perspective, but you need organizations and individuals to give up their power and adapt their procedures to enable effective collaboration or support. A youth movement won’t have a constitution, governance structure or probably even a bank account, yet this doesn’t mean they can’t and don’t want to be accountable. Have an open conversation where you ask young people how they think they need to address these issues and they will likely work it out or seek your support if they can’t. Oxfam and many NGO’s missed the the opportunity to support many youth movements during the Arab spring because they were not connected and when they were they couldn’t respond quickly enough with the support young people were asking for.

    We developed this youth theory of change resource which provides a conceptual map of some of the outcomes for enabling youth movements and collaboration with young people. It was made with young people across the globe.


  2. Thanks for the great piece Patrick- lots of valid points. A few other thoughts from working on this with the Accountability Lab:

    i) Meeting young people where they are- I think we’d agree youth campaigns have to be improvised. They also need to use creative approaches that tap the interests young people have in an authentic way- whether that be music, street art, film or something else. If the content isn’t interesting, people won’t engage.
    ii) Finding unusual partnerships- campaigning these days means thinking through broader partnerships. Big NGOs and donors are not the best partners if they act in traditional ways- as you mention. There are many creative collaborations that are emerging with nimble players in the private sector (including social enterprises), media (including citizen journalism) and even parts of government (with reformers at the local level who have the political will to push for change).
    iii) Sustainability is key- youth leadership turns over- by it’s nature it is transitory. Planning at every point for who is going to step up (and giving them the freedom and authority to do so) is important so that there is always someone (or a group) coming through that can take the reigns.

  3. David Waller


    It’s not just involving young people in campaigns: it’s engaging citizens so that the campaigns are theirs and not a marketing / branding / positioning vehicle for the NGO that is managing it but that undermines the very local agency that their rhetoric of ‘empowerment’ purports to desire.

    I think your analysis is great concerning how NGOs – especially INGOs – undermine and disempower local grass roots activism and agency by taking charge of campaigns to suit their corporate branding needs as much as to argue for change.

    The way campaigns are run too often renders the citizens whose interests are being campaigned for as passive observers rather than active agents of the desired change. It ignores the principle of “nothing about us without us” and it dispalaces and undermines the development of real social movements while leaving governments to complain about foreign interference (and allows them to reduce the space for ‘civil society’ that NGOs purport to represent.) It is citizens who bring about change. Outsiders and NGOs can support citizens but at the moment their campaigns – however well intentioned – too often do the opposite: they take the place of citizens and undermining their legitimacy.

    In terms of our language and our approach “Involvement” is too vague and too often tokenistic. The challenge is how to achieve “engagement” so that the drive for change is comes from and is shaped by citizens at all levels of the society concerned.

    And how to do that?

    Listening is a good place to start: listening to the citizens’ views of what works, what doesn’t and what should be done about it. Our experience was that 90% of the proposed solutions are the same as those proposed by the external experts. The difference is that showing the respect of listening properly to people who have always been ignored transforms the relationship as those who have been listened to become active agents in changing their lives instead of the passive subjects (victims?) of some else’s strategy or project (however technically brilliant it is).

  4. As an UN/NGO filmmaker and arts curator, having worked 15 years with artists – primarily youth artists and artists of color – in my work with UN/NGO agencies, I can say this article is very timely and important. The development jargon, the logos, the egos, the attempts at institutionalizing non traditional actors – are a big turn off and especially for the creative community, can stiffle what we are actually good at. Moving and inspiring people to care and get engaged! On top of this, as a storyteller and curator for the Women Deliver Film Festival, I can say these problems bleed through to the creative content produced by many NGO/INGOs. The creative content is ineffective when it’s heavily focused on celebrity narrators, are overtly promotional with messaging that is so down your throat or has no story behind it- just a bunch of numbers and reasons why they think we should care. In order for the global dev community to truly engage new audiences with creative marketing, we need to build institutional credibility of artists so they can have a seat at the table and give valuable feedback. Otherwise, I fear this will all backfire and the creative community will turn their back on the development community for fear of feeling exploited or disrespected. Thank you so much for unpacking these problems and happy to continue the conversation with anyone who is interested. My personal website – lisarussellfilms.com. My Create2030 website – create2030.org.

  5. Cara Nolan

    Thank you for the post, Patrick. I agree – the growing voice of young people is a powerful force in campaigning. And rightly so. So many of the issues of today – from climate change to rising inequality to conflict – stand to radically redefine the world that will be experienced by today’s youth. This week’s School Strike 4 Climate Action in Australia, in which thousands of students are striking from school to demand stronger climate action from politicians – is another example to add to your list of powerful youth movements. And it seems as though the message is reaching parliament. (See: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/nov/28/hundreds-of-students-striking-over-climate-change-descend-on-parliament)

    What I find interesting is whether, and how, NGOs can reinforce the youth campaigning movement. You discuss the ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra, and make a compelling case for NGOs to pay more attention to involving those affected by their programs. But in involving those affected in the activities of an NGO, how can you stay true to their voices? If their message is ever at odds with that of the NGO, how can that tension be managed? In the case of the School Strike 4 Climate Action, the movement was born directly from the students themselves (under the umbrella of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC)). How would this have changed if it was managed within an external NGO? Would that support or hinder the movement? Or is the role of the NGO more to amplify the message of the youth movement, rather than become directly involved? These are questions I’m interested in exploring.

    In Geoff’s comment, he makes the point that “a youth movement won’t have a constitution, governance structure or probably even a bank account”. These are challenges I encountered when starting up a youth movement myself – a movement for youth social entrepreneurship (http://www.impactsocialenterprise.com). We quickly realized that, by trying to separate ourselves from any university or organizational affiliation, we had removed ourselves from the ability to seek any kind of financial sponsorship or be protected by public liability insurance. Setting up a proper company or non-profit structure was beyond our capacity, and frankly felt disproportionate for the small idea that we didn’t know would take off. Thankfully, we were able to figure out an auspice arrangement with the Queensland Social Enterprise Council, who gave us these financial and legal protections while leaving us the autonomy to pursue our own direction. I’ve seen a number of other great youth movements fail to get off the ground because of financial and legal challenges similar to those we encountered. If NGOs really wanted to help youth movements get off the ground, I reckon a great place to start would be to provide a low-risk way for them to acquire the financial and legal scaffolding necessary to conduct simple operations (raise funds, hold events, etc.) without imposing too many constraints. An incubator, I guess, but it need not have all of the mentoring and other support that often comes with an incubator – just the bare minimum back-end scaffolding of public liability insurance and a bank account. I appreciate taking on this role adds risk (financial, reputational, legal) for an NGO and adds a degree of administrative burden, but I think would be an interesting experiment if bolstering youth movements is a way they want to go.