Mobile connections in the hands of youth may be the secret weapon for a strong democratic future in Kenya.
Excitement is soaring surrounding Monday’s election, and for good reason: the fate of the country--and the futures of more than 13 million youth--rest heavily on voting results. But regardless of the voting outcome, Mercy Corps hopes that empowered youth, representing the next generation of Kenya's leaders, will have the skills to transform their lives and achieve a democratic, peaceful future for their country.
In the wake of the last elections, over 1,000 Kenyans were slaughtered and more than half a million fled their homes in fear of ethnic violence. Much of the turmoil in 2007 was led by youth who were inspired and supported by political agitators.
Some of the violence in Kenya can be attributed to the anger of unemployed and disenfranchised youth. According to a study by the UN development program (pdf), 80 percent of the country’s unemployed population falls in the 15 to 34 year age range. In other words, 1.8 million young people are unemployed and their numbers imply a major influence as 14.3 million registered voters head to the polls.
Recognizing the vital role of youth in Kenya's future, USAID, in partnership with Mercy Corps, developed a project in 2011 called Yes Youth Can!. YYC was devised as a three-year program to support Kenyan youth empowerment, as described in the country’s 2010 constitution. Through YYC, young people organize parliaments, known as bunges, led entirely by their elected peers. The bunges, 15,000 nationally and growing, provide a forum for youth to develop leadership skills, engage in democratic decision-making, improve their quality of life and revive the true spirit of harambee, or "community self-help."
More than ever before, young Kenyans are taking an active interest in the campaigns and really listening to the promises of the eight presidential candidates this year. They are trusting that at least one of these aspirants can improve the education system and create better jobs in Kenya. Perhaps the culture of violence that has grievously defined Kenya since its independence in 1963 can give way to one of peace and productivity.
In an effort to tap into the power of harambee, YYC hosted a number of youth-led events promoting peace this past year. Mobile technology has been a powerful player in organizing these events and making sure their local message reaches a larger community. Mercy Corps' partner in developing the technological aspects of the YYC program is the software company ThoughtWorks.
Mercy Corps and Thoughtworks see mobile technology as a powerful way to take peace-building to a new scale.
Jeff Wishnie, co-director of the Social Impact Program at Thoughtworks says that "The overarching goal of YYC is to further youth engagement." To that end, the first step of the YYC initiative was to link the youth parliaments, or bunges, across Kenya. Each of the 50 national leaders of the National Youth Bunge Association received smart phones preloaded with YYC contact information. At the village level, about 10 percent percent of the bunges are using SMS as a communication tool. As connectivity grows, bunge leaders around the country will be able to communicate effectively and efficiently with one another.
Such connections can ultimately keep youth out of the reach of recruiting violent gangs. Participation in YYC gives youth something that Rebecca Wolfe, Mercy Corps’ senior youth and peace-building advisor, refers to as “social capital.”
“Gangs are about belonging,” Wolfe says. “When you’re connected with people and can share your ideas, it feels good.”
Many former gang members have become involved with YYC and are using their newfound social capital to inspire others to make positive changes in their communities.
Removing the rose-colored glasses, one fear is that these modes of communication may not always be used for good. Mobile technology--including SMS and social media like Facebook and Twitter--has proven to be a formidable weapon for social change. As seen in the Arab Spring, these tools help stir positive political action but can also be used to coordinate violence.
"Ubiquity of communication is a double-edge sword," admits Wishnie, “as when rumors of possible violence via SMS were blamed for the panicked departure of Muslims from Bangalore, India this past summer.” But after balancing the possible good and bad, he believes that facilitating the growth of mobile technology is a positive thing.
Wolfe agrees. “You can mobilize for good or bad reasons.” Mercy Corps incorporated modest safeguards into the SMS system used by the YYC leaders, but the real thrust of the program is “getting young people to take responsibility for their country and work toward a better future.”
The channels of communication are already there, and with or without efforts from YYC, they are only growing more ubiquitous. Giving youth communication tools is made all the more powerful when they have a structure to work within, helping them gain leadership skills and develop a voice for positive change.
Mercy Corps drew on best practices from the Obama presidential campaign’s use of social media. YYC campaign elements included such activities as "peace caravans" in the weeks leading up to the election, with outdoor LED screens projecting SMS peace pledges from youth, starting with the words “I choose peace…”. YYC also focused on Facebook as a potent way to inspire people with messages of peace. There are currently 1.5 million registered Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 35 in Kenya. Messages posted by YYC leaders reached nine percent of all Kenyan Facebook users.
Andrew Kibe, a technologist on the Mercy Corps Kenya Digital Innovation Team, said he was proud to work on this project:
"Being one of the youth in Kenya, I was hugely honored to work on this project, from bridging the communications gap for the youth in the villages to amplifying their personal messages of peace to youth across Kenya and to the world via our Twitter API connection. But at the end of the day it was the youth that made it work."
"We gave youth a microphone but the words they spoke were their own."
Ultimately, Mercy Corps and ThoughtWorks hope the benefits of their technology solutions will extend past inter-bunge communication. Ideally their efforts will be a means of continuing community involvement and democratic governance in Kenya. Yes, youth can have a voice, and a powerful one at that.