Girls attend class in the computer lab of the Al Kabri School for Girls, an UNRWA-operated school in the Jaramana refugee camp, near Damascus, the capital. UNICEF, supports educational, health and psychosocial services for Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian children. Photo by: © UNICEF / NYHQ2008-0525 / Kate Brooks

In Mozambique, a 16-year-old girl got pregnant by her teacher. Her school suspended her but did not take any action against the teacher.

UNICEF published the story of Linda (not her real name), as well as what it’s doing to help prevent similar cases of sexual abuse against minors in Mozambique, on its website Oct. 19. If you’re one of the U.N. agency’s 1.2+ million fans on Facebook or its 600,000+ followers on Twitter, you would have received a notification about the article on your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline.

“I hope we will be successful and save all the children from bad people,” says one comment on UNICEF’s Facebook wall post.

But of course, for UNICEF, an organization recognized for its serious pursuit of innovation, there’s more to social media than just disseminating information about its programs. It has, in fact, incorporated social media use in some programs such as Connecting Classrooms and Voices of Youth.

UNICEF is also working on a new communication and public advocacy strategy that, according to Gerrit Beger, will embrace social and civic media as a core element. He also said the organization’s social media guidelines will be released soon.

Beger heads the youth section at UNICEF’s communication division. His unit is currently working with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on the Digital Citizenship and Safety project, which aims to raise awareness among the youth in developing countries about the benefits and risks of using digital tools.

In this exclusive interview, Beger explains the different ways UNICEF is innovatively applying social media in its work. He also argues that organizations should humanize their voice so they would “sound more authentic” when engaging in social media.

Tell us about your social media strategy or vision.

Social and civic media can be used more in the future to build awareness, generate revenue and engage stakeholders in a deeper dialogue around child right issues. We can use social media and technology to communicate, exchange ideas and mobilize key communities to take action to serve children in need.

What has your social media presence allowed you to do that you may not have been able to achieve otherwise?

Overall, in UNICEF, it allows us to support fundraising, deeper engagement and build innovative partnerships with new players in the field of technology including academia and like-minded NGOs. We can be faster putting stuff out, be more reactive.

The number of our followers has grown significantly in the last years and by now we are reaching a significant amount of people with our social media messages. Social media allows us to identify and join conversations on issues related to UNICEF mandate, interacting directly with our audiences. They provide feedback on our projects and programs and help us to understand trends on global issues. We are now more agile compared to when we just used traditional media.

Give an example or anecdote for how you’ve used social media in an innovative way.

There are amazing opportunities lying ahead for humanitarian organizations like UNICEF to use social and civic media tools much more effectively to aim for a deeper engagement of stakeholders and real dialogue — in our case, about child right issues. We believe that a greater understanding of the problems and challenges faced by children around the world will result in more action and impact. And we also think that UNICEF can become an even more open and transparent organization by pursuing this active engagement with all our different audiences.

We know that many of the younger generation is also engaged in social media, although, surprisingly, on some social platforms, you’ll clearly see that it’s mainly people in the 30s age bracket. Still, we know that a lot of young people are out there, and these are our next generation of supporters and the people that will make UNICEF 20 years down the line. So it’s really important for us to engage those as well.

We have not only looked at engaging our audience and stakeholders through social media, but we have also started a number of initiatives that go far beyond this. For instance, a project called Digital Citizenship and Safety, and this initiative is really looking at how young people are using digital tools in developing countries because there hasn’t been any research done and we know very little about it.

So for the last two years, we’ve closely worked with our country offices in countries like Ukraine, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey to get this project off the ground. It consists of three phases. Phase one is about putting research together on how kids are using digital tools in developing countries. Then, we’re designing communication campaigns and materials to raise awareness about the benefits of using digital tools but also some of the risks involved with it. The third part is related to advocacy and working with the local governments to ensure that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is translated in a digital context because there are quite a number of articles in there that have to do with access to information, the right to assemble peacefully, etc. And all of these have strong online components in terms of sharing information, setting an agenda or organizing gathering. Quite a lot of that we’ve seen in the last month in civic movements around the world, often supported by young people.

So these are some of the things we’re doing. We’re also using social media platforms for educational programs. We have a program called Connecting Classrooms in eight African countries at the moment, where we train teachers on the use of social media. And these schools become a network, a cross-border network where pupils work on common issues, exchange experiences, and so on. They have been discussing issues such as climate change, health in my community and post-conflict countries.

We have also completely rebuilt UNICEF’s oldest online community, which is called Voice of Youth. It was first established in 1995. It was basically a normal website and a messaging board. And we have now gone back and turned it into a social media website, so young people can contribute articles and discussions on issues that affect their lives. We’re also organizing some offline actions in some country offices for young people that are engaged.

What do development organizations, whether bilateral and multilateral, nonprofit or corporate, need to know about social media and how it can help them?

In the U.N., we need to think about humanizing our voice when we engage through social media. We need to sound more authentic. Sometimes we tend to use words and jargons that make it a little bit harder to understand what we’re really talking about. So humanizing the voice in social media is one important issue.

I think a mistake that is commonly done is to use social media platforms to just push information out, just another platform to distribute press releases or any other stories. But it is much more, and we really have to aim for a deeper engagement with the audience. We have to adjust our writing style, and we have to enter into a dialogue with them to be able to tap into the full potential of social media.

Given the rise of mobile phones on the African continent and also in many other areas in the world, we need to look more into using mobile for social networking beyond Web-based platforms. It’s happening in some countries, but there’s much more potential given the incredible increase of mobile phone users everywhere.


About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.