“Make sure you’re civically engaged and you vote for people that you want. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Change starts with you.”
-Chedi Ngulu, founder of MegaMark Communications
African youth want change. But to get change, they must be active participants in civil society.
That’s what two 2014 Mandela Washington Fellows and YALI Network members who each organized a voter education campaign said during a live webchat hosted by Macon Phillips, head of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.
Phillips called the next two years “exciting” for Africa, as more than 20 countries on the continent will hold presidential elections.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for change and for civic engagement and for organizing young people to be more engaged in their community,” he said.
Sobel Ngom, founder of the Social Change Factory in Dakar, Senegal, and Chedi Ngulu, founder of MegaMark Communications in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, joined Phillips to talk about their experiences educating voters and to respond to questions submitted online by YALI Network members.
Ngom said that during the run-up to Senegal’s 2012 presidential election, his encounters with other youths found them uninterested in the election process. So he decided to use his expertise in communications and marketing to form an information campaign that “could turn around the situation.” His campaign targets youth ages 18–24 and uses a combination of social media and hip-hop music videos and concerts to deliver messages about the importance of voting and civic engagement.
When asked about the best way to reach audiences, Ngulu replied that his campaign relies heavily on social media for its increasing penetration into the population and for its cost effectiveness. He said money saved using social media instead of advertising in traditional media can be used in activities on the ground.
Ngom also makes extensive use of social media and technology to communicate with voters. His team developed an online application that teaches computer users about the voting process and provides descriptions of candidates. His team reaches other people around the country in-person and through printed voter-information materials. He said his campaign has grown to 150,000 followers online and 200,000 followers who do not use the Internet.
Phillips, Ngom and Ngulu all stressed that technology is only a tool for achieving your objectives. Anyone wishing to create campaigns and initiatives of this type must have an effective strategy to reach the target constituencies and spur them to action.
Responding to a question about how to engage unemployed youth in the democratic process instead of letting them fall into “the trap of violence,” Ngulu said that his campaign addresses the need for civic engagement as a violence-prevention measure:
“If people realize that violence won’t take them to where they want to go, they will be involved in civic engagement.”
Ngom stressed that “the first thing we can do to support the democratic system is to vote. Then it’s to encourage people we know to vote. Then, identify the factors that keep people from voting and work on a solution,” he said.
“The challenge is to find a way to convince young people that if they want to lead another life, maybe the vote is a way to get there,” Ngom said.
Addressing a comment about a general lack of interest in voting, Ngom said that in much of Africa older people were not taught “how to be citizens,” so they tell young people that “there is no point in voting.”
To counter that, he said, “we have to build citizens.” He added that his other major effort — the Social Change Factory — is helping youth build a sense of belonging to their nation and gain a sense of citizen responsibility.
Ngom added that he wants the Social Change Factory to become stronger and eventually gain the government’s financial or moral support. He wants “to make citizenship something fun, something cool,” he said. He wants “to build a long-term citizen.”
Ngulu also believes that encouraging citizens to be civically engaged is what will lead to change: “We tell young people to make sure you’re civically engaged and you vote for people that you want. Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “Change starts with you, and casting your vote for people who will deliver in your best interests” will lead to the change you want.
“If you look at some frustrations people have — they do not think their vote will make a difference. So they don’t have a chance to make change,” Ngulu continued. However, Phillips reminded the audience of one of his favorite quotes from Obama:
“A good leader … says ‘believe in yourself’ versus ‘believe in me.’”