This initiative borrows and implements concepts from corporate start-up culture — a campaign incubator and accelerator model — to both invest in and scale small ideas from local youth actors, and build their skillsets and agency.
Main Features of the Populist Context
Since the 1960s, Myanmar’s ruling military elites have espoused a nationalist vision of Burma grounded in the majority culture (Burman), the majority religion (Buddhism) and the majority language (Burmese). These policies have isolated and oppressed Myanmar’s ethnically diverse population. Despite a recent transition to proto-civilian democratic control, Myanmar has adopted an “anything goes” model of populism that supports authoritarian rule. The two core elements of populism are present in Myanmar:
anti-elitism: the political landscape is dominated by the Burman ethnic majority group, which defines itself uncompromisingly as the one “true embodiment” of Myanmar, thereby marginalising minorities as the “other”.
anti-pluralism: Denationalisation rhetoric employs “recent arrival” myths to deny the longstanding presence of minority Muslim communities, especially the Rohingya population, in the country. This has fueled prejudice and violence against the Rohingyas, and common acceptance of this situation. Alarmingly, the military’s harsh treatment of this group has received widespread support from the local population, even though they themselves have been victimised by these forces. Hardline Buddhist monks portray themselves as leading a struggle to save Buddhism from a “rampaging Islam”.
One additional feature of populism in the context of Myanmar is that it is resistant to countervailing facts. Radical Buddhist monks and others have mobilised communities with disinformation and fake news, delivered systematically through social media, to justify and promote ongoing political and ethnic persecution.
Role of Digital Media
In less than ten years, there has been transformative growth in access to the internet in Myanmar, from around 1% of the population to 80%. The rapid adoption of social media networks has created new opportunities for public engagement. However, this promising new space for civic expression is now under threat, having been monopolised and manipulated by well-resourced and highly organised actors skilled at spreading disinformation, politically-motivated propaganda and negative agendas to assert their vision of a mono-cultural state, and control over citizens through online information warfare. Fake social media accounts promoting nationalist, anti-Muslim and pro-Buddhism content have proliferated in recent years.
Children and youth make up almost half of Myanmar’s population, yet their voices are often ignored, dismissed or de-legitimised by traditional hierarchical and authoritarian political structures and decision-making. Youth voices representing ethnic and religious minorities, girls and socially excluded groups such as LGBT+ are even more marginalised. Myanmar’s education system does not prepare youth with the critical thinking skills needed to actively participate in civic debate. Nor does it prepare them to effectively navigate the new digital civic spaces that have emerged overnight. Low levels of digital literacy and poor critical thinking skills make youth susceptible to online disinformation and hate speech, cyber-bullying and digital security issues, causing them to withdraw from civic participation in this space and thereby reinforcing the nationalists’ goals. But there is significant potential to inform, invest in, activate and empower this next generation of Myanmar’s leaders to insert their voices into the political discourse and advocate for social issues that are important to them.
Main Features of the Innovation
Shift enables emerging youth movements to directly develop impactful digital campaigns for positive change by providing the community, structure and seed funding to connect them with creative and technical mentors. Youth are the decision-makers at every stage of the campaign design process, which tackles issues spanning peace, gender equality, mental health, education and the environment. The project also develops their digital literacy and campaigning through experiential learning methods.
The main features of the innovation include:
This approach challenges “old power” structures which have historically marginalised citizens, particularly young people, in decision- making, to be more responsive to “new power” peer structures.
This new model is also a deliberate decentralisation of Save the Children’s own institutional power, which has led to the evolution of new internal ways of working (i.e. self-disruption).
The key elements of the process are:
An independent advisory board governs a competitive grants-based mechanism for youth groups already actively campaigning on issues. The board provides seed funding for campaign development.
Successful grantees then attend a five-day campaign accelerator workshop. This workshop develops digital literacy and safety skills that are then used to co-design a campaign strategy using a variety of fun and participatory activities specifically for Myanmar youth. Teamed with a creative partner, the participants explore an issue they want to change and identify the vision and targets for a public campaign. They then develop and test two creative concepts, plan how they might initiate the campaign and make important decisions on budget priorities.
With the youth acting as “clients”, the creative agency takes a number of weeks to internally refine the two creative campaign concepts and then pitch them to the youth group for its final decision. Campaign approaches vary based on the preferences of the youth group, but may include video, photography, documentary, song, theatre performances, street art and even public stunts or other offline activities.
Public engagement for all campaigns is driven through Shift’s own Facebook hub that connects campaigners across the country through private online groups to exchange ideas and build connections.
While each issue-based campaign has its own specific targets, overall the Shift campaign brand provides agency to youth voices needed to influence national policy. Even more importantly, Shift inspires a new generation to see that youth (especially from marginalised groups) can lead change through people-led movements.
Young people can shift the world – Campaign successes (Update 2020):
The three youth-led Shift campaigns have been highly successful, with three youth groups (of 41 young people aged 17-25) – Air Quality Yangon, Yangon City Shapers and Colourful Girls – designing and delivering three campaigns which together reached more than 17.8 million people on social media and were picked up by media 120 times.
Air Quality Yangon’s ‘Know What You Breathe’ air pollution data campaign
The student-led group, Air Quality Yangon, launched its first awareness campaign ‘Know What You Breathe’ about air pollution in Yangon, to make data more digestible and approachable. It ran for six weeks and featured a large white bear character, Dr. Air Bear, travelling through the city streets becoming gradually darker to show just how dirty the air was, and encouraging people not to drive cars. His progress was shared on Facebook along with relevant scientific content, and gained a large social media support base. The campaign successfully inspired the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology to release its air quality data to the public. Further funding has now been secured to grow youth-led air quality campaigning beyond Myanmar’s cities and into regional centres, where practices such as burning also create equivalent air pollution problems.
Young City Shaper’s #plastictimeoff community waste management campaign
Youth volunteers at Young City Shapers/Doh Eain launched a waste management awareness campaign called #plastictimeoff, to encourage communities to refuse, reduce and recycle single-use plastic. It ran for six weeks and featured a digital challenge for residents to show off creative ways of reducing single-use plastic waste, linked to a fun placemaking event in the community to upcycle and recycle waste. The campaign successfully created Yangon’s first single-use plastic-free zone which motivated the community to maintain the public space for three years, with committed support from the local government.
A village-based girl-led youth group, Colourful Girls, launched its first awareness campaign about gender-based harassment, rare in Myanmar’s patriarchal context of. It ran for four weeks and featured a sign of ‘the clap!’, to indicate girls’ discomfort when encountering harassment from young men in the street. A song was created which included this signal, and was performed by the girls at large community events and shared widely online, reaching two million people beyond their villages. The campaign empowered girls who had never led anything before in their communities, and created a replicable ‘campaign-in-a-box’ toolkit for other girls to follow suit.
Creating space to accelerate entrepreneurial thinking for context-relevant campaigns or responses requires international civil society organisations (CSOs) to work with new types of partners, rethink internal decision- making and budgeting processes and eliminate organisational egos. Save the Children has deliberately set out to bring together traditional and non-traditional actors — tech start-ups, campaign strategists, and local creative agencies — to ensure youth have unlimited access to cultural leaders and mentors. The project’s approach has also challenged Save the Children’s own procurement and financial procedures to provide youth with opportunities to shape the planning and budgeting process. When it comes to campaigning, international CSOs need to build in greater flexibility and allow for more bottom-up “trial and error” campaign development processes.
Experiential learning and putting your money where your mouth is, is very powerful. Many skill-building workshops with civil society groups fail to support the actual application of those skills. In contrast, Shift fully funds the issue-based campaign upon completion of the skills development workshop, thereby transforming its impact and delivery. As they have a stake in the campaign’s success, youth are both more motivated and more critical of the skills they are developing and the campaign they are designing. The majority of learning will happen in the delivery of the campaign. This direct investment in youth reinforces both the organisation’s belief in them, and ultimately their belief in themselves.
International CSOs should not always try to be the voice for people, but instead focus on ways to organise “from behind” and develop models where people can speak for themselves. If the goal of your project is to reinforce democratic principles, empower people and inspire leadership, international CSOs need to actively dissolve their own organisational power. Although this can be difficult, especially for larger organisations, when it comes to the right of children to participate, it is fundamental. Empowerment begins with ownership of one’s own strategic direction — whether a youth campaign or international CSO — and must continue throughout the entire duration of any project.
This is an established innovation as of 2020, it has been fully implemented and the youth-led campaigns have achieved influence and impact in both urban and regional areas of Myanmar. Based around human-centered design and experiential learning principles, Shift demonstrates use of new tools, tactics and types of partnership to engage the organisation’s core primary constituents (youth groups).
Save the Children International is one of the world’s largest child’s rights organisations, currently working in around 130 countries. It has worked in Myanmar since 1995, supporting children’s rights to survival, protection, development and participation.