Can youth use social media to bring change in Uganda? Well, its complicated

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When masses of young people took to the streets of Tunis, Tunisia, on December 18 2010 to demonstrate against the corrupt, despotic government and its incompetence in fighting the rising food prices and high youth unemployment, they communicated through social media means that you and I take for granted.

Utilizing Twitter and Facebook, they mobilized fellow young Tunisians in large numbers to unite and express their dissatisfaction with the 23-year-old regime that had done almost nothing but to suppress civil rights at the expense of the minority ruling class. The minute President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14 2011, it became clear that the first ever Twitter Revolution in the world had occurred.

A universal social media revolution is unfolding before our eyes, forever changing the way we connect. I see this everywhere I go; youth in all major towns preoccupied with their cell-phones; a young girl tweeting from a health-care clinic in Kampala; a young Ugandan nurse taking notes on her iPad.

At the same time, we are living in a country faced with huge social challenges. Last year, Uganda reached a historic milestone with 37 million people, Eight million of which are youth aged 10 to 24 and of this young population, over 40 percent live in major towns across the country.

This generation, the most interconnected generation ever (globally), continues to grow rapidly, and the challenges we face per country are ever more daunting. About a quarter of all young people in Uganda survive on less than two dollars a day. More than two million adolescents do not attend school. Every year, over 300, 000 adolescent girls become mothers and over a half of the 380 new HIV infections each day are young people.

Therefore over the next ten years and beyond, if we are to solve these challenges of our our time, we need to tap into the dynamism of  digital youth movements and young social entrepreneurs, for they have the potential to disrupt inertia and be the most creative forces for social and political  change. We need to ask ourselves: how can we – young people, youth leaders, youth led NGOs, academia — empower ourselves to drive social and governance progress in Uganda through new and innovative projects?

With the status quo, am afraid the answer to the above is long term. Just spending an hour on twitter, will show you that most youth are interested in European soccer, gossiping, posting lyrics and looking out for the latest nude releases (by the way, am serious on this).

Many of us don’t even realize how dramatically social media has changed the face of the Earth. Now, it is just a matter of clicking the buttons “Like”, “tweet”, “post” or “Comment” to make Uganda’s social and political situation make a giant leap or take a sharp back turn. And I couldn’t help but again wonder: do we really know what we want to share to the rest of the world as young Ugandans?

Our country has a long history of youth-led movements dating way back to 1960s that brought about significant social and political change. Young people have advocated for child labor laws, voting rights, civil rights, civic engagement and above all democracy. Through their actions, at least we can say they have played their part.

Major examples of the above include our current president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. Museveni together with a couple of friends formed the FRONASA when he (Museveni) was just 26 years old! On a social scene, Sister Angelique Namaika the nun who saved 2000 victims from LRA insurgency are the striking examples of the current old generation who played their roles when they were still young.

The question now is, do we care for the future of this country or not? If our fathers and mothers who were not connected like us made a difference and shaped their now future of Uganda, what excuse will we give for not utilizing the potential and masses we have like never before?

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Because young people often have the desire, energy and idealism to do something about the injustice they see in their community, they are powerful agents for change. They just need to be shown that they have that potential to bring about change both politically and socially in this digital and connected era.

Esther Kalenzi (40 Days 40 Smiles), Humphrey Nabimanya (Reach a Hand, Uganda), Patrick Mwesigwa, Irene Ikomu (Parliament Watch) and now the team of bloggers behind This Is Uganda (blog and twitter pages), are among the notable young people and organizations which have tapped into the potential of using social media for social and political change.

On the other hand, massive and successful hashtag campaigns which have led to connective and collective actions have been received widely on social media. These include(d) #SaveTheMiniSkirt, #TweepsHelpBududa, #UgandaWalks, #MPsEngage, #Hoops4Grace, #UgandaIsNotSpain, #AskThePM, #Kony2012, #BuyABrick and #SackOfMoney.

However, a closer look at the above hashtags rises a striking common characteristic. Almost all the above collective action digital campaigns were in 2013 and below. This raises the question of whether the new Ugandans on social media and Internet as a whole are not interested in effectively using the Internet for development rather than just gossiping and retweeting tabloid pages.

So as we are busy commenting on and retweeting gossip pages, here are examples of youth making a difference across the world through social media.

Two young girls in Latvia used a grant they received from the US Embassy to build an e-petition system so their fellow Latvians could participate in policy changes through submissions and suggestions. The government looks at petitions supported by at least 20% of the population of Latvia. Here is a video by the Guardian where the foreign affairs of Latvian was talking about the petition.

In Pakistan, Students participated in a Sanitation Hackathon in 2013 to develop mobile- and web-based applications for water and sanitation utilities. It is on record that over 100 students below the age of 26 from all over 20 universities in the country came together to find solutions for 13 water and sanitation related challenges in their communities.

Lastly in Philippines, students are using social media to inform the public about the challenges they are facing at school. Most young people in the Philippines are online, so interactive websites for example checkmyschool.org are making it very easy for them to evaluate their schools. Projects like these have the potential to be implemented in various parts of the world including Uganda. Here is another video illustrating Check My school;

The above are just examples we can borrow to begin advocating for political and social changes in Uganda through technology and social media. We have to be ready for change as young Ugandan when that time comes.

I believe that young people in Uganda can be the spark of change in our country. However, we need to do a better job of creating engaging programs that help young people develop confidence in taking action by making leaders embrace the digital atmosphere, learn new skills that lead to employability and accountability, and leverage the power of technology to help solve problems.

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