Communicating statistics: building youth demand for progress in the SDG agenda

Posted on 23/05/2018 by Katrina Kilkenny (WaterAid UK)

Young people have a pivotal role to play in determining how the world will achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda. Goal 6, making clean water and decent toilets normal for everyone, everywhere is not a goal we can reach without the contribution of young voices. 

Statistics also matter. Substantiated data describes the reality of people’s lives, and provides important indicators for how, where and why we should be working to tackle lack of access to WASH. However, as Amy Keegan explores in a recent post on the persistent problem of zombie statistics; out-of-date, exaggerated or unsubstantiated statistics present an inaccurate view of our progress in the WASH sector, and fail to convey the true scale of the problem: ‘We have a long way to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and reach everyone, everywhere with access to decent WASH. We can only get there is we are honest and accurate about our progress.’

An accurate and honest statistic can be a powerful advocacy tool to strengthen accountability of governments and donors within the WASH sector, but strong statistics also have a vital role to play in our communications outside of the sector. Part of our work is to deepen understanding and build demand for change in a public audience that do not always find statistics engaging. Furthermore, the growing scepticism towards aid in the UK public and media means that now, more than ever, it is vital that we find ways to communicate the realities of the WASH crisis with a youth audience in a way that is both factually accurate and motivating enough to harness their potential as change-makers in the development agenda.

The problem is that the wonderful world of statistics can be a little dull. Pupils in UK primary schools won’t find much relatable in the fact that 10% of the global population don’t have access to at least basic water, or that 2066 is the year projected to reach 100% basic sanitation access based on rates of progress between 2000-2015 (WASHWatch). Our challenge is to use this data in a way that makes our work in the WASH sector applicable and motivating for a young audience who are unlikely to be familiar with the issues described.

For this, context is everything. The picture presented in the fact that 844 million people don’t have clean water close to home (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme JMP Report 2017) is too broad and fails to narrate an understandable reality for the average young person in the UK. Instead, we can provide a familiar frame of reference, which allows a child to find something in a statistic that resonates. When speaking to a classroom, for example, we can break 844 million people down into the 1 in 9 who don’t have clean water close to home. By encouraging pupils to split into 9 equal groups which physically mirror the number of lives potentially impacted by lack of access to WASH, the once broad image takes on life and meaning within their own classroom. Much of this is about simplification: breaking a large global statistic down to the individual level and introducing personal case studies can provide opportunity to introduce the real, human stories hidden within the numbers, which are often all too easy to ignore.

When working with the UK education sector, we can narrate the crisis and our goals through WASH messaging that introduces pupils to individuals of their own age who go to school, play football at break-time, have countless aspirations like their own, but also face the daily struggle of maintaining these without clean water close to home. Building a familiar narrative around the data brings Goal 6 to life in a way that is relevant to the young person and the classroom context in which their global learning is taking place.

In light of a growing anti-aid narrative in the UK and the vast technological advancements of recent years, building a toolkit for WASH messaging becomes more challenging when we shift our focus to the older youth demographic. Developments in technology have changed the way in which young people are being informed, now that they are more connected to information in the world than ever before. Zombie statistics are persistent in online sources of information, social networks and even academia, and the rise of ‘fake news’ in traditional print and broadcast news doesn’t help the abundance of misinformation leading to  widespread misconceptions about the development sector, our strategies and our progress in the SDG agenda. 

Whilst technology and digital media has great value in the development agenda and building demand for change, conversations built on misinformation have far greater reach and influence online than ever before. A lack of youth engagement can only be a barrier to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, so it is important that young people have an accurate understanding of the WASH crisis and our progress.

This is why online platforms like WASHWatch, which provide a trusted source of substantiated datasets about our progress towards SDG6, are so vital. Digital initiatives in the WASH sector can help mitigate misinformation amongst the older youth demographic and effectively narrate the WASH sector’s efforts by harnessing the power of online conversation. This means building a strong presence on social networks, disrupting misinformed rhetoric and inviting young people to become part of the solution. This July, we will have a moment to create change: world leaders will gather in New York to discuss worldwide progress on providing access to clean water and decent household toilets for everyone, everywhere, by 2030.

Youth have a great deal of energy and potential to lend the WASH sector, and by conversing with them – whether through digital platforms, through the education sector, or through youth organisations – we are far more likely to cut through the misconceptions and build the demand for change needed to reach everyone, everywhere with clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene within a generation.

It’s a big goal, and we certainly can’t afford to build narratives upon datasets that can’t be trusted.

Katrina Kilkenny works in youth engagement at WaterAid. She tweets as @KatrinaKilkenny