Since 2004, a group of young people aged between 18 and 30 have been contributing stories, essays and photojournalism on everything from human rights to social exclusion to a website called Brainstorming.
Talía Delgado, its founder, originally launched the magazine in print form, but soon realised the potential of web-based technology as a channel for views from around the world. Today the site’s contributors come from 17 countries.
Brainstorming is one among a growing number of websites that demonstrate the power technology is bringing the next generation of activists, environmentalists and philanthropists.
Mobile phones help keep Albanian youth movement in the picture
When images of police brutality appear in an instant message on your mobile phone it has a powerful impact. At least this is the experience of Erion Veliaj and the other young activists behind Mjaft!, an Albanian youth movement whose name translates as “Enough!”.
Mjaft! was founded in 2003 by Mr Veliaj and three other former high school friends who, returning from their studies at west European and US universities, were horrified at the corruption, poverty, organised crime and failing public services they witnessed in their home country.
Initially, the initiative was “a public campaign to provoke the public into action, to shake off civic apathy,” says Mr Veliaj. “Now it has developed into a fully fledged civic movement.”
With a professional staff of about 30 people in their mid-20s, the organisation caters to interest groups ranging from mining unions to student groups and immigrants overseas.
For Mr Veliaj, technology is fundamental to the workings of the organisation. For a start, it allows staff to do their work from anywhere. “My whole office is on my cell phone,” he says. “Most of our staffers are always travelling, and we have 10,000 members and about 1,000 all-time-ready volunteers. In minutes we can reach dozens to show up at a spontaneous action.”
Within seconds, the organisation can deliver pictures from a labour or political protest to news agencies. Using the multimedia messaging service available on mobile phones, its text messages can reach up to 500,000 subscribers.
These images allow the organisation to cover anything from government ministers going through red lights to voting patterns on important government bills as displayed on the electronic board at the country’s parliament.
Staff members use mobile communications to keep in touch with the office round the clock, even when on the road and in remote parts of the country, allowing them to expose issues that go unreported by most mainstream media outlets.
Mr Veliaj believes technology is a powerful tool in prompting political, social and environmental change. “It changed our world here in Albania,” he says. “Increased internet access, mobile connectivity, speedy information and ways to network via technology have contributed to getting a rather apathetic public in 2003 into a vibrant community of genuine interest groups fighting around a cause, making their stories heard, and inviting others to join in.”
And while Brainstorming is a channel for ideas, other young people are using the internet to channel funds to the needy. For example, Matt Flannery left his job as a computer programmer two years ago to focus on the website he launched, kiva.org. This facilitates small, person-to-person loans to entrepreneurs located anywhere from Zambia to the Philippines.
Microfinance institutions vet the borrowers who post their profiles along with photographs on the site to attract lenders, who then receive e-mail updates from their borrower.
These kinds of borderless organisations are becoming increasingly common as young people who have grown up with high-speed internet access and mobile phones no longer see country borders as limiting their activities.
“The blurring of national boundaries is important with this generation,” says Alan Williams, vice-president for leadership and engagement at the International Youth Foundation. “ So if they’re engaged in the environmental movement, it’s not just in the US, it’s global because technology allows them to interact with other young people irrespective of border.”
The spread of global online communications has shaped the way young people approach the issues they face. For if websites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook have provided new entertainment and new friends, the technology can also be harnessed to create the networks and spread the information needed to address social and environmental problems.
The YouTube model is one in which Witness – the human rights organisation co-founded by rock musician Peter Gabriel – sees great potential. Anyone capturing human rights abuses or witnesses’ testimonials on video, whether through a camera or mobile phone, can publish their footage on the site.
“It’s really important to have the online space because that’s where the next generation of youth is,” says Suvasini Patel, communications and outreach manager at Witness, which uses video and other technology in human rights campaigns.
And while computer-based high-speed internet access is less prevalent in the developing world, rapid uptake of mobile technology gives even young people in poorer countries a tool through which to channel their activities.
The potential of mobile technology has not been lost on Witness. As Ms Patel points out, the organisation no longer has to rely on people with expensive camera equipment – anyone with a mobile phone that shoots video can contribute. “Hopefully as we see the proliferation of cell phones around the world we’ll see a global citizenry,” she says.
The challenge for young people, therefore, is less about mastering the technology but how to deliver their message in an effective way using hand-held devices. Examples have already been seen in the political arena, as the recent youth-led text messaging campaign mobilising young people to vote in Poland showed.
Mr Williams has found young people well versed in delivering a message quickly and powerfully. “In our fellowship training we went around the room and got people to introduce themselves,” he says. “These people could give their message effectively because they’ve had to do this as part of the online culture.”
Of course, in addition to providing tools for young activists, social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, technology also helps improve the lives of underprivileged young people.
In the UK, Vodafone is working with organisations such as the Samaritans and YouthNet – a website that provides everything from jokes to information on the issues affecting young people – to promote access to vital information via mobile phone.
This has several advantages, says Sarah Shillito, head of the Vodafone UK Foundation. “They don’t have to be literate to use a mobile, whereas with the internet there are challenges for those that have missed school,” she says. “And they have confidence in the privacy of their mobile phone. They can ask what they want to ask, when they want to ask it and with a method they prefer, whether voice or text.”