Beyond the bubble, millennials take center stage for EYD2015

Youth ambassadors for ONE with Seán Sherlock, Irish minister of state at the Department of Foreign Affairs. ONE launched a campaign that aims to harness the European Year for Development to highlight the need to end extreme poverty. Photo by: The Irish Labour Party / CC BY-ND

It is not only seasoned global development professionals that are being tasked with shouting about #globaldev issues from the rooftops in this crucial year for development cooperation.

Indeed, the European Commission and members of the European Parliament are counting on young people to help spread the word too. In several European countries, young activists are set to take developments issues to the streets and along the corridors of power.

“We need your engagement and enthusiasm to reach out to the people, and not just those in the development bubble,” European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica told a group of 40 youth ambassadors at the launch of a campaign organized by ONE in Brussels last week.

The youth ambassadors campaign aims to harness the European Year for Development to highlight the need to end extreme poverty, with awareness-raising actions set in the context of the 12 EYD2015 themes outlined earlier this month.

Mimica reiterated that 2015 is crunch time for the future direction of global development.

“Political and communication processes are shaping a completely new development agenda,” the development commissioner said. “We have managed to reach the Millennium Development Goals to a quite high extent, but we have just one year left to reach the goals in full.”

At the same time, he stressed, the community is transitioning from the MDGs to the follow-up framework of the sustainable development goals — a task not without significant political, policymaking and financing challenges.

An event-filled year for development

Indeed, in July this year, all eyes will turn to Ethiopia for the Addis Ababa Financing for Development conference, followed quickly by the decision on the post-2015 SDG framework at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, before finally fixing its gaze on Paris for the COP21 climate conference in December.

“I’d like you to be part of this process,” Mimica told the youth ambassadors, “and I’m looking forward to see young people follow your example.”

The EYD initiative, spearheaded by nongovernmental organization development platform Concord, the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Parliament, will see a broad range of initiatives during the year in Europe to stimulate interest and participation of EU citizens in Europe’s development policy.

The moment to push for development is now, Elly Schlein, social democrat member of the Italian Parliament, told Devex.

“This is the first time that a European campaign year is devoted to a theme that focuses on the EU’s external actions outside of Europe,” Schlein said. “Together with civil society, we have to pull in the rest of the European Parliament and work with EU institutions and member states on this crucial agenda.”

What role for the youth?

Schlein and other MEPs met with the youth ambassadors to discuss their role in this crucial year for global development.

“Not many people are aware yet of the EYD,” she told the assembled youngsters. “But for us, it’s part of our mission to raise awareness about the SDGs.”

The EYD campaign fits in with Schlein’s work as a rapporteur in the Parliament’s committee for development — known as DEVE — where she negotiated and pushed through a common parliamentary position on the post-2015 agenda.

“We had three weeks to plough through some 500 amendments, but in the end we got a massive agreement with 541 votes for and 96 against,” she said.

The vote highlighted the need to achieve more coherence between development issues and other policy fields, among the various MEPs, between European institutions, and with politicians and parliamentarians in the EU’s 28 member states. That makes politicians a prime stakeholder target for the young ambassadors, German MEP Arne Lietz said at the meeting.

“Ask every member of your national parliament to push on development in their constituency. Ask your national politicians to raise EYD as a national issue. Come up with smart campaigns and good ideas,” he said.

Connecting with politicians has become easier thanks to social media, but will they listen?

“Yes,” said Schlein. “If you have a sincere message, it will get through.”

And there is a fair amount of good news that the youth ambassadors can pass on to elected representatives, according to U.K. Labour MEP Linda McAvan, who chairs the DEVE committee.

“We often hear negative comments: Aid is a waste of money, we can’t afford it, it gets soaked up in corruption, and so on,” she said at the launch meeting. “But the truth of the matter is that development works. This has been demonstrated by the MDGs, and this view is gaining support. In the U.K., all parties now support development aid: They don’t dare not to.”

A pledge to help end poverty

It will be a different task, however, for EYD campaigners to formulate and present messages to the general public. That was discussed at an earlier preparatory meeting for EYD stakeholders and participants in December 2014, where public relations firm Weber Shandwick presented an analysis of the setting for the year’s awareness-raising activities. Its research indicated that campaigners could be facing an uphill battle, with strong negative attitudes, skepticism about the success of aid, and only a third of the audience positively engaged on development issues.

Nevertheless, the company saw opportunities for swings in public opinion, which would allow for the target audience for development-related messages to be doubled. Among the new audiences identified for information campaigns and messaging is the so-called millennials — the present generation of young adults. This group is seen as being critical, while remaining open to being convinced by a different viewpoint and therefore offering enormous potential. Themes that resonate most strongly with them, according to the analysis, are empowerment, self-reliance, shared values, gender equality and partnership.

Commissioner Mimica told Devex he felt “reassured” by the high level of support expressed by Europeans for development assistance, especially among young people. A recent Eurobarometer survey indicates that 85 percent of EU citizens think it is important to help people in developing countries, and 67 percent believe development aid should be increased. Young people aged 15-24 score even higher than the over-25 group, but appear to take less personal involvement in development issues — a gap that could offer openings for a targeted awareness-raising campaign.

Each of the ambassadors signed a pledge to help end poverty, to which they could attach their own personal priority, offering a wide array of issues for action. These included transparency, reducing child mortality, defending the rights of ethnic minorities, among many others. Talking about their plans to Devex brought up a flurry of general ideas: going out in the streets, speaking in schools and talking to politicians. Further meetings will be held to crystallize their enthusiasm into concrete actions.

“I want to live in a world where there is enough food for everyone,” one of the ambassadors, Veronika Josza, told Devex. She was drawn to humanitarian work in her native Hungary where she was involved in collecting food for the poor. Now working in Brussels, she has expanded the scope of her engagement: “I want to be a global citizen; I don’t want to look away and think that Africa is too far away from us.” Josza will be active in Brussels, while at the same time reaching out to decision-makers in Hungary.

Stéphanie Broos, a young mother from Belgium, said she chose gender equality and women’s rights as the theme of her personal commitment.

“I have an 8-year-old daughter who is from a developing country,” Broos said. “She is already confronted with struggles, both from her country of origin as well as from Belgium. That’s why it will be important for her and many other girls that their rights are protected and respected.”

The Brussels launch is part of a series organized by ONE, involving some 250 young people in seven European countries. The youth ambassadors campaign kicked off earlier this month in the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy and Ireland, with launches to follow in Germany and France.

How can millennials best take #globaldev messages to both well-established and new audiences? Will policymakers and development implementers take their feedback on board? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Diederik kramers

    Diederik Kramers

    Diederik Kramers is a freelance correspondent in Brussels covering EU and NATO affairs. A former spokesperson and communications officer for UNICEF and UNHCR, he previously worked as foreign desk and Eastern Europe editor for the Dutch press agency ANP and as editor-in-chief of the Dutch quarterly Ukraine Magazine.