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Contacting UNICEF

By Spiros Tzelepis, Greece

How the project Voices of Youth (VOY) works

Just a few months ago the word "UNICEF" was closely related in my mind to the notebooks and cards I am buying each year since it is my school's habit to promote this idea among students. My first contact with the organization was last December when I sent a message asking for collaboration between adults and kids. After having sent the message and not receiving an immediate response, I felt disappointed and forgot about it. I thought "how could an organization like UNICEF pay attention to a message from a kid like me?" To my surprise after three months, I received an answer, asking me to describe to them the Junior Summit's projects. This way I started learning more about UNICEF and the Voices of Youth project in which I started participating from time to time. This is how I got to know Mrs. Anne Sheeran and Mr. Jeff Zucker, the coordinators of the project, who very eagerly agreed to meet me on line and discuss the project they are running. Therefore, I am inviting all of you to share this discussion.

1.Spiros: How was the idea of the Voices of Youth (VOY) conceived and who was the first who thought of it?

Jeff Zucker: Robert Cohen at UNICEF came up with the idea of using VOY as a way to get youth participation into the World Summit On Social Development In Copenhagen, and he approached my company to design an interactive website. I began work late 1994 and the website went live in early spring 1995.

2.Spiros: So you are the "tech guy"?

Jeff: I am the "tech guy". I design all the software, but I am not just "a tech guy". I was in the civil rights movement and anti-war movement when I was 14 and 15. I have always been interested in youth activism and global issues. Our idea is purpose (youth participation) comes first and software follows it.

3.Spiros: Which is the purpose of the project?

Jeff: For the beginning, the idea was for young people to express themselves and for policy makers to listen, and the basis was the convention on the Rights Of Children. The second phase of VOY came when Nora Godwin of the Education for Development department in UNICEF took it on. She helped redesign it to the convention on the rights of the child and on the ideas of global education. Then Anne came on board and really changed a lot of the content and helped extend our outreach. Andreas Guerrero is the current director of the Education for Development and the overall director of VOY.

4.Spiros:Which are Anne's responsibilities?

Anne Sheeran: I develop content and research the issues, and I also do most of the project's outreach, mainly through UNICEF offices.

Jeff: We all work together to decide on project goals and to find ways to get the voices heard by policy makers. Anne has gotten together really diverse groups; one chat matched young dropouts from Mongolia, Turkey, Costa Rica, Malawi, Mexico and Guatemala.

Anne: Because of participation in UNICEF country offices we can involve youth from poorer communities. That is very important to us.

Jeff: We have had young participants who live on the streets in Bangladesh or work in the mines in Brazil or deaf kids from Iran. VOY has always targeted to the excluded.

5.Spiros: Do you think it is enough just to receive some messages. I mean do you believe that policy-makers hear these voices?

Anne: We want young people to hear from each other and learn as much as we want policy makers to hear, too. Youth-youth dialogue is just as important as youth-policy makers dialogue. Especially when we can bring in young people who would otherwise not be heard (from poorer communities). The youth-youth dialogue can be really meaningful and a prelude to serious discussions with policy makers.

6.Spiros: It is very important, but what happens after the dialogue, what about certain action?

Anne: Net activism is something we all are learning about these days

Jeff: We work directly with people implementing UNICEF policy in several areas.

7.Spiros: How can we transform their voices to action?

Jeff: Two kinds of action: local community action by youth using VOY and other projects to network and action by policy makers

Anne: We are fortunate to be able to feed youth voices directly back to Unicef program officers who make use of this information

Jeff: We use VOY to let the heads of the UNICEF Education division talk to school dropouts. We are setting up a dialogue for young people to feed their ideas to the Unicef Water and Sanitation departments. We work directly with HIV-AIDS programs at Unicef and UN aids so that young people can through VOY tell them about the direction and even wording of their educational material.

8.Spiros: What are the results of all these?

Jeff: You will go to Nepal and look at their sanitation project or to Namibia to look at the peer-to-peer HIV counseling

Anne: If I read a message on the site and I am enlightened or moved by it, that is a result.

9.Spiros: So when you received the messages from Yugoslavian children how did you feel?

Anne: I felt horrible to hear their situation. I felt glad there is a place European and American kids can hear what it is like on the other end of the bombing. I am always glad when I see messages of substance rather than some kind of bland rhetoric.

10.Spiros: Do young people respond to the project?

Jeff: We want young participants to teach each other about the causes of conflict, not just keep telling each other "war is bad"

Anne: Where else are young outside the Balkans getting to hear from young people in the Balkans? The educational capability of these worldwide websites is really important.

11.Spiros: Do you think that the project needs more publicity?

Jeff: We are more concerned with impact and on publicity in the developing world in the sense of higher access. We are almost done with a poster and a brochure.

12.Spiros:Is there a memory that you would like to recall?

Anne: I have a strong memory of delegates to the International Conference on Child Labour sitting in the plenary session auditorium watching a slide show on huge monitors which contained messages from young people, responses from delegates and more responses from young people. This was in 1997. It was a powerful moment. It showed how a dialogue can happen virtually and that young people are not interested in polite adult rhetoric.

Jeff: For me last year at the World Youth Forum. Many people came up asking about VOY, but the most were from Africa: 17 different countries and just now in the Hague the first two to send messages were from Sudan and Columbia. This tells me that those with the least public voice and those with the most need have the most interest in VOY and tells me that it can be a real conduit for messages that need to be heard and acted on.

13.Spiros: Talking must be turned into action.

Jeff: Let me tell you about one project I saw in Nepal. There was a boys club and a girls club that were village micro-credit groups. The girls were trying to buy a sewing machine. It would be the first in their village; they have saved for about 6 months and were still working on it. When they got it, they could start small businesses and support themselves. UNICEF was supporting the clubs and also worked with the local governments to improve the economy and provide schooling as young people continued to work.

13.Spiros: What are your plans for the future?

Jeff: We will be debuting some new games, many new discussions; we will have lots of activities about the Convention of the Rights of the Child

14.Spiros: From your experience are the children rights enforced?

Jeff: We want to hear the answer from them. Children's rights are violated in every country, but certainly child soldiers, child prostitution, landmines, child labour are worse in some places.

Anne: There is a monitoring committee on the CRC based on Geneva. They review progress on CRC in about a dozen of countries each year. UNICEF publishes something called the progress of countries each year. We would like to have a discussion on CRC for the 10th anniversary this coming November.

Jeff: There is a detailed discussion of companies exploiting children in our child labour section. One way to take action is for young people to help monitor the progress of the CRC. We will be asking them to tell us about rights violations in their own communities. The children are exploited; the question is how to prevent that without making them starve to death.

Anne: Going from talking to action means being willing to get involved locally. Then move on up from there.

15.Spiros: Is there anything you would like children to know about VOY?

Anne: I would like young people to know that rather than comforting the afflicted, we are in the business of afflicting the comfortable.

Jeff: That we want to hear from them what issues they consider important and what direction they would like themselves and the VOY to go towards taking action on those issues

Anne: Translated, that means we want to stimulate critical thought about the way the world works, the things people take for granted

16.Spiros: And adults?

Jeff: That VOY is one of the several ways to begin listening to young people which is something they better start doing if they want to have any effect on the future

Anne: They stop "seeing" racism when it does not affect them, they start blaming the poor for being poor instead of acknowledging structural inequality?I think there is a lot that people take for granted.

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Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002

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