At least one thing is true of youth in every country: give them access to technology and a bit of guidance, and they’re capable of changing the world for the better. Helping young people do exactly that has been the job of the State Department’s Ronan Farrow for the past year.
Farrow has served as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special advisor on global youth issues since the middle of 2011. He firmly believes that technology is radically altering what it means to be a young person today, as social networks give them an unprecedented opportunity to have their voice heard and connect with other youth around the world to fix the problems they face.
“It’s going to be people under 30 that solve this generation’s problems,” said Farrow. “Our principle at the State Department has been, ‘How can we turn to young people using these new technologies and tap them for their solutions?’”
According to Farrow, the State Department recently launched a “hard, honest review” to see if its policies and outreach programs worked for young people. The result? A diplomatic corps that’s been trained in social media and digital outreach, ready to engage youth on myriad platforms.
“Now we’re really coming around to understanding,” said Farrow, whose excitement about the State Department’s internal embrace of social media is only eclipsed by his enthusiasm for the digital projects he’s done with youth in a multitude of countries.
“We build all around the world,” said Farrow. “We bring groups of young people together, it’s a great thing to do in places where people are skeptical of world powers. We say, ‘You, teenager in Algeria, tell us exactly what you want from us.’ We then support them as they try to make their goals a reality.”
Farrow pointed out two examples of those goals: an e-petition service in Latvia and an SMS-based English education platform in Tunisia.
In Latvia, Farrow and his team worked with two 23-year-olds who were frustrated by their inability to participate in the political process. To fix that, they made use of a small State Department grant and built an e-petition system where Latvians could submit and support proposals for new laws and other political changes. The government agreed to look seriously into any petition that got a certain amount of popular support on the platform, and it’s been used by at least 20% of the Latvian population (Fun fact: It’s also the direct inspiration for the White House’s “We the People” platform).
Over in Tunisia, Farrow describes having a “seminal moment” when his team needed to access a population that didn’t have access to the same level of technology available elsewhere in the world. What Tunisians did have — and this is true across much of Africa — were SMS-enabled feature phones.
The State Department quickly realized they would need to embrace SMS if they wanted to reach Tunisians wirelessly. Farrow’s team accordingly got to work with local partners on a pilot program designed to teach English over text messages, which the State Department said played a key role in helping people outside of cities keep up with their education during the Arab Spring.
“We had a very large pilot program on mobile English education which was a great success,” said Farrow. “We had 535,000 users in the first 90 days. We’ve flipped it over to a pay model for end users because there’s such demand for English language training.”
Farrow, who’s leaving the State Department to pursue a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, said that many of the digital ideas that youth have for their own communities are easily portable to other parts of the world with slight modification. The State Department is also hosting technology training sessions, known as “TechCamps,” for young people and activists all around the world.
Ultimately, Farrow’s message to any young person with a good idea is simple: Just do it.
“The U.S. wants to play its part as young people play their role,” said Farrow. “But nobody should wait for support. With our level of connectivity today, everyone can find that mentorship or seed resourcing. Whatever it takes, find a way to get your idea off the ground if you have one. And remember: world powers really are listening to you.”
How have you seen young people change the world for the better with technology? Sound off in the comments below.