Promoting quality education for all.

Why youth engagement is the answer to education

Madge Thomas, 

We consistently talk about how youth are the future. In fact, they’re the now.

There is no clearer justification for youth engagement than when we consider the challenges facing global education.  Unlike other issues contributing to extreme poverty, like health, famine/hunger and barriers facing girls and women, the education community has not had a ‘spotlight’ moment in the past 10 years and was almost relegated to the ‘decidedly un-sexy’ realm.

Why? The cost of delivering education is difficult to quantify and varying; the barriers can range from country to country so there is not one set investment that can make a difference everywhere; other resources like food and health, particularly in a conflict or crisis, are seen as higher priorities, and education is a very long-term investment because the ‘return’ and impact – such as improvements a country’s GDP, can often take several years to demonstrate.

This makes it harder to attract long-term investors to education and to showcase the reasons why education is a sound investment. But the voices of young people and their stories of progress and challenge, have been hugely impactful and effective in changing hearts and minds of leaders and drawing global attention, including with celebrity support, to current global education challenges.

The reasons and the potential benefits of involving, empowering and supporting youth, as advocates, as solutions brokers and implementers, as students and as decision makers, are multifaceted.  Our responsibility as members of the education sector is to make sure young people are heard and supported, in order to improve access and quality of education.

1.     They have a clear, public voice like never before through technology

The old adage – children should be seen and not heard is firmly out the window. Technology and social media have empowered young people not only to have a voice, but to have it heard, and join forces with other voices around the world.  Much-criticized millennials are actually just the new wave of civil rights advocates that we saw in the 70s and 80s. And with the help of this technology, education is finally getting its moment.

The reach of mobile, chatbots, & vlogs enables a broader geography of young people to advocate using just their phones. This means a whole new generation of young people can have their voice heard in the digital world and means maps and geography can’t hold them back. Those young people have the ability to reach a wider audience than ever before.

They are able to advocate from their home, their coffee shop, the streets where they live, and share their deepest thoughts in just 280 characters, interspersed with emojis! And technology is moving rapidly so we have to keep pace. In a smartphone-driven world - Advocacy that today is driven by a tweet will tomorrow be driven by blockchain contracts.

Young people are the ones with their finger on the pulse, keeping pace with the trends and we need to take guidance from them. And more than ever, they are willing to do something, 78.1% of millennials across the world surveyed in 14 different languages said they would be willing to make a change to protect values like the environment and education. We must salute the grassroots as well as everyday young activists who have been tweeting, emailing, calling, meeting and petitioning their leaders relentlessly over the last few years to tell them what matters to them when it comes to global education.

2. They know their voices are stronger together and in coalition

The power of a young person’s voice and their story is magnified when other young people can share and direct these stories in actions toward their leaders. In global education, the collective voice of young people has had considerable influence recently.

At Global Citizen, our digital platform engages around 20 million young people around the world each month and our 8 million-strong user base of ‘Global Citizens’ are aged, primarily, between 18 and 35.

Over the past two years, we have engaged these young global citizens in targeted campaigns towards world leaders and seen incredible results.

Last year, ahead of the G20 in Hamburg, over 200,000 global citizens took action to support the Education Commission’s vision including education in the G20 communique. And leaders have listened.

Since then, global citizens from Melbourne to Mumbai, from Namibia to New York from Ottawa to Oslo have taken an impressive total of over 300,000 actions, calling on world leaders to support the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) through its replenishment effort last year. This February, GPE received pledges amounting to $2.3 Billion for 2018 to 2020 and this was in no small part due to the voices of youth.

We have also been able to report impact to donors, including the impact of advocacy on education, through human stories of the children affected, as told by those children themselves. For example, this piece, tells how a Twitter Invasion of Norway resulted in schools in South Sudan through the eyes of two students, Otii Nelson Ochola and Eunice Abber Betty.

Photograph of two young girls who are looking at each-other and smiling. Photo Credit Global Citizen.






3.     Young people inspired each other to act

Young people care about issues affecting other young people. Why? Because they can see themselves in those issues. Young global citizens in the South Bronx have told us that as a student completing an education in New York, they understand the possibility and unfairness of another student their own age in Malawi or Kakuma Refugee Camp or India missing out.

Caption: On World Humanitarian Day, 2016 students in the South Bronx connected with refugees from camps in Jordan and Kenya in a Microsoft store in New York to discuss education! Credit Global Citizen






Through social media and the flow of information, live, raw from all over the world, they can be transported to a situation that someone else is experiencing. With virtual reality, live chat portals and YouTube, distance is not a barrier to seeing through another’s eyes what missing out on an education looks like. This helps build awareness, empathy, and understanding across continents which spurs young people to action in support of their global ‘neighbors’.

The Send my Friend to School campaign in the UK, in which UK students advocate, for the government to support refugee education, is a perfect example of how empathy from youth can materialize as global advocacy that influences leaders. Many MPs across the UK were inspired by the campaign, and have used their own political capital to stand up for refugee education and most recently, this saw the UK commit to signing the Safe Schools Declaration to prevent attacks on schools during conflict.

Caption: Boris Johnson, Global Citizen and young campaigners from Send my Friend to School participate in a handover of youth actions calling for Safe Schools








We have seen the greatest success and action result from our advocacy campaigns that stand with and behind young leaders, future leaders, and their goals. At our Global Citizen Festivals, where the likes of Beyonce, Coldplay, Jay – Z and Pearl Jam are headlining, the most moving, memorable and watched moments included Malala, joined by 4 young refugee girls calling for all girls to get an education.

Caption: Malala Yousafzai and young refugee girls advocate for girls’ education at he 2015 Global Citizen Festival








When Alex took the stage with young refugee swimmer, Sarah Mardini, and Ambassador Samantha Power after he invited Omran from Syria to come and attend his school.

Caption: Sarah Mardini and Ambassador Power welcome 8 year old Alex to the Global Citizen stage






When Wongani, a 14-year-old boy from rural Malawi, stood with former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, Prime Minister Solberg of Norway, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Shakira, to remind the G20 why education for kids like him is so important.

Wongani Nyirenda speaks alongside world leaders at the Global Citizen festival in Hamburg









A group poses with a poster at the Global Citizen festival in Hamburg





[Spoken word poet, Lisette]



Just this Tuesday, at the European Development Days, a young Belgian poet, Lisette, moved the Audience, including the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium and State Minister for Luxembourg, to emotion with her passionate poem, ‘Me Too’ about the barriers to education and opportunity that girls face. Her words helped launch our #SheIsEqual campaign, which, among other things, will ensure governments invest critical funds so girls can access 12 years of safe, quality education. 

Youth activists can speak directly to the young population, and inspire change through their stories. They also inspire our leaders – and force them to act on education.

Take Fatouma a refugee now based in Canada, whose petition to G7 leaders to prioritize girls’ education based on her own experience, now has over 170,000 signatures globally. With those like Malala and more joining the call, we are hopeful that the G7 this week will see a commitment to prioritize girls’ education and significant, new investments from Canada and other donors to do the same. 

Demi Lovato’s conversation with Muzoon Almellehan via Skype 4. Celebrities care what their fans say

These young people have been received as rockstars – alongside actual rock stars! They don’t just inspire other young people – everyday citizens - but also inspire young celebrity influencers whose platform can engage even more people in support of global education.

Here’s why that’s exciting. After Demi Lovato’s conversation with Muzoon Almellehan via Skype about the role that education played in her journey since fleeing Syria as a refugee was released, thousands of her fans took action in support of Education Cannot Wait, a Fund for Education in Emergencies which encouraged the Australian government and others to commit to the fund. 

In 2015, when Rihanna asked her Navy and global citizens to act by calling on Canada and France to support funding for the Education Cannot Wait fund for education in emergencies, they listened and committed funds THAT YEAR. 

Rihanna's tweet to PM Justin Trudea calling on him to make a change

And when GPE’s global ambassador, Rihanna, as well as Malala and Bono, called on young people earlier this year to encourage their leaders to support the GPE replenishment conference for 2018 to 2020, young people around the world raised their voices in cacophony, using the hashtag #FundEducation.

Having young celebrities with big networks stand behind young activists and students and call on their fans to act, helps raise the critical funds needed to support education. Witnessing the work of local activists and organizations has also inspired celebrities like Rihanna, through her Clara Lionel Foundation, and Demi Lovato through the HEART program, to invest in education programs and projects on the ground.

Ideally, the next iteration of this will be engagement with private sector leaders who also have the capacity to invest in education. Young consumers, as one of their critical income streams, can vote with their wallets and arguably have potential to influence corporate leaders to invest in global education mechanisms (as opposed to the privatization of education).

5.     They are best-placed to develop education solutions and then implement them

Young people are impatient, and they know how to mobilize fast. Technological platforms enable them to share their stories and tell the world what they need in terms of education. Education hackathons - dominated by young, entrepreneurial minds, and teaching and learning innovation awards, demonstrate the potential of youth-driven and youth-centric solutions.

The viral efforts of students from Parkland High School, who are taking a stand on school safety and encouraging hundreds of young people to register to vote around the country in order to do something about the issue, is telling.  Groups like 260 by 26, who are engaging their own advocacy and crowdfunding effort to help meet the education financial gap that was identified by the Education Commission, and individuals like Davinia James who is singlehandedly sending hundreds of girls to school, show that young people are increasingly frustrated with donor reliance. They are able and motivated to take matters into their own hands to fund education in innovative and creative ways.

Davinia James raises pennies for girls’ education around the world

More than ever, youth are becoming the drivers of their own solutions to global challenges, including education. But one of the most important parts of hearing from young voices is actually listening to them. Young people can spot tokenism a mile off and, more than ever, actually want to be part of the education solution.  And the potential for young global citizens to lead change and innovate solutions is enormous.

Ensuring our decision-makers listen to their ideas and include them in decisionmaking, is the best way to develop solutions that will directly improve learning outcomes and address needs at a global and local level. 

South-North dialogue is critical to this process because when young people with different backgrounds and perspectives, exchange ideas, experiences, knowledge, and understanding, they are better prepared to effect change and develop innovative solutions. 

At a local level, young people are best poised to call for targeted and effective change. It then follows that they can help implement that change and influence local attitudes to education as well.  Their solutions and ideas can have far-reaching, positive effects by convincing their families and communities, from the ground-up, to believe in the value of education.

But civil society and global leadership need to ensure that young people with big ideas have a seat at the table - not as consultees, but as genuine interlocutors, and decision makers. 

Benefits and consequences

The benefits of engaging youth - in a meaningful way - in the fight for global education are numerous. Just as important are the benefits that could flow, and consequences of non-engagement.

We need to remember that young people will soon be parents and leaders themselves.  They can put in place the policies we want to see in the not too distant future and instill the value of education in their families and create the same opportunities for their children that they were afforded.

According to the Learning Generation report, by 2050, African countries will be home to a billion young people. We must acknowledge and plan for the future of these young people side by side.

In terms of advancing education and SDG4, there is a need for making diplomacy interactions inclusive and balancing traditional power structures – from activities such as the G7, the G20, the African Union dialogue and the UN General Assembly at the global level to working with local governments and stakeholders. Young people can play an important role in education diplomacy and solutions.

The sheer numbers of young people in areas where education levels are poorest – sub-Saharan Africa and India, also create an impetus for engagement.  If we don’t act now, this will be a range of future leaders slipping through the system – or worse – becoming disenfranchised and threatening to subvert it through extremism.

Studies show that youth out of school and their families are more likely to turn to child labor, child marriage, early pregnancy, extremism, and other reckless ways of earning money or feeling part of a community.

The imperative to get every child in school and learning, is not just because this will ensure that we are training them for jobs of the future to sustain the global economy – and in many cases lift their families and communities out of poverty-   but also because if we do not act now, we will have hundreds of millions of youth losing motivation, missing out on the foundational social and skills that enable them to interact and prosper.  And youth are not just an integral part of the solution - but part of the advocacy roadmap to getting there.

Madge Thomas is the Director of Global Policy and Government Affairs at Global CItizen and the Education Advocacy lead.


At Global Citizen, we drive citizen-led action on global issues through our digital platform. We ask users for their voice, not their money, because we feel that nothing is more important or influential for our leaders than hearing the voices of global citizens. On our platform,, global citizens can take actions - like signing petitions, tweeting emailing and calling leaders. Each action earns them points, and with the points, they can enter a draw to exclusive, free events, like our annual Festival in Central Park. New York City.

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