Radhe Patel

NYC Urban Fellow: Policy, engineering, economics, & dance.

Rethinking Online Engagement

The MyWorld Survey is a tool the United Nations used to crowd-source the post-2015 development agenda’s sustainable development goals. Available online, the survey allowed anyone to select priorities for global development from a large list spanning many themes. Over the past two years, individuals in every country casted their votes, and volunteers were sent out to the most remote communities around the globe to ask people, “What six development objectives matter most to you?”

Considering that the first set of Millennium Development Goals came from negotiations among high-level UN officials, with no consultation with/from grassroots leaders or advocates, it is exciting that the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the result of an open process. Through this and other outreach, the SDG committee provided individuals the opportunity to have some of the most direct impact on international policy possible.

So, I was surprised and shocked to find out that when the new SDGs were unveiled he United States represented just .9% of the total votes in the survey.

I cannot help but think the UN is troubled by this comparatively low number and its implications. As a developed country with a majority of people – especially young people – possessing electronic devices, internet access, and memberships to social media networks, it would seem perplexing that so few have taken the quick online survey. Why wasn’t this demographic targeted for survey participation? It raises the question: is the UN’s (and other organizations’) approach for engaging youth in developed countries as effective as it could be? And if it isn’t—why are ‘old’ organizations so slow to recognize the potential of a young, energized, and virtually mobile generation?

Young people in developed countries have the time, energy and constant access to technology to add value to initiatives and take projects further than the ‘traditional’ audiences of international organizations ever could. Securing their interest and engagement online allows organizations to raise awareness and push initiatives faster and further than ever before– through social media, effective crowd-sourcing, and expanded networking to bring experts and champions to causes that need them. Models like the ‘online good deed’- based lottery for the Global Citizens Festival concert shows that innovative models have the power to engage this demographic, yet we see little to no focus on creating more platforms and initiatives that can efficiently collect and harness the commitment of this technological population.

As a blogger attending the UN Foundation’s Social Good Summit, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in social movements ranging from water-sanitation projects to gender equality and anti-violence campaigns. When I asked many of them what students in high school and college could do now with their time and passion to contribute to their projects, I was often told the same things: “Tweet about it! Donate online! Talk to your friends about these issues!” While I agree that awareness and discussion is a key aspect of any successful social change, I see these responses as pushing us into a culture of ‘internet slacktivism,’ where nothing more than tweets and ‘likes’ are expected from us. Students that are enthusiastic about different topics have the skills to help edit code, maintain websites, and lead campaign outreach. If organizations took time to develop online volunteering infrastructures, where they could put projects that the public could reasonably and credibly work on, these youth would have a chance to contribute and the organizations could be more productive.

I believe it is imperative that social organizations start moving in this direction and find projects that could fit this model. By revisiting and reworking an online engagement strategy to make young people in the US stakeholders in the development process, we would be able to accomplish more and add to existing initiatives abroad with a unique contributor base. The results will be inspiring.

The MyWorld survey can be found at myworld2015.org