How Young People are Saving the World

In 2015, the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals, a revision of their earlier Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs, as they are commonly known, are 17 goals to address the world’s most pressing issues by 2030. They include ending poverty (SDG #1), eliminating Hunger (SDG #2), achieving Gender equality and reducing other inequalities (#5 and #10), and preserving the environment and developing sustainable energy practices (#7, 13, 14, and 15). People tend to respond to the SDGs one of two ways: with a lack of optimism or a sense of urgency. 

Both responses are justified. Ending poverty or climate change by 2030 is perhaps overly utopian but, to paraphrase former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, we have to try. Poverty, racial inequality, climate change, hunger, public health, and poverty are all issues that have an immediate and often catastrophic effect on people every day. Somewhere between these responses is the common critique that, if anyone could achieve these goals, it wouldn’t be the UN. They don’t have the resources or the influence to make such a difference. There is an organization, slightly older than the UN, that does have the resources and the influence to make serious progress towards the SDGs and it may hold the key to making lasting global, change.

In 1922 a 65-year-old veteran of the Boer War, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, spoke to the 3rd International Congress of Education, which would later become UNESCO’s International board of Education. In his address, “Education in Love in Place of Fear,” he described a youth group that could train young people to be strong, brave, loyal, and disciplined, like soldiers, while also instilling values of peace and love rather than militarization and fear. Fear, he said, “dominates our policies in every country in the world.” In the aftermath of the ‘war to end all wars’, countries were increasingly militarized because, Baden-Powell said, “[w]e desire peace and so we prepare for war, fearing lest the enemy should attack us”. In order to build a culture for peace, he argued, “we have to do away with the cause of war… fear and… the fighting spirit. And that is a matter of education.”

Baden-Powell had become a household name in Britain after he defended the town of Mafeking, South Africa in the Boer War. According to Winston Churchill, “the British Public… looked upon him as the outstanding hero of the [Boer] War”. This fame was quickly eclipsed in 1907 when he founded the global Scouting Movement. It was in this movement that, 15 years later, he saw the potential to eliminate the cause of war. 

Today, the Scouting Movement is the largest youth movement in the world with over 50 million members and 170 national organizations (including The Scout Association in the UK and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in the US). Outside the movement, Scouting is often seen as a quaint outdoors club, the hiking equivalent, perhaps, of a church youth group. More recently, scouting in the US has been the subject of controversy, from abuse cases resurfacing from earlier in their history to debates about membership policies (girls were first welcomed to the Boy Scouts of America’s flagship program in 2019openly gay scouts were first welcomed in 2014).

The Scouts’ roles in community support and global development have often been overlooked. In the Second World War, scouts contributed to the war effort in a variety of roles, including smuggling Jewish children out of occupied France, as portrayed in the recent film Resistance. In the decolonization of the ‘60s, ’70s, and 80’s, local Scout groups organized and supported community development through food, housing, literacy, and public health programs.

In the last 50 years, The World Organization of the Scouting Movement, the umbrella organization of the movement since 1922, has been partnering with other major organizations to increase Scouting’s impact on global needs. These include the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, HeforShe and UN Women, UN Environment, and UNESCO. In 2001, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Gustav of Sweden helped develop a program to encourage peacebuilding Scout projects around the world. In 2012, that program was expanded with the goal of producing 1 billion service hours addressing issues of global importance by 2020. As of today, 1.8 billion hours have been logged.

Recent projects have included a public information and PPE distribution campaign, led by scouts, in Niger, distributing food and cleaning supplies to Venezuelan migrant families in Guyanaproviding non-formal education to the children of stranded workers in India, and supporting the Red Cross in GeorgiaIn the Central African Republic, Scouts have been guiding community members through the jungle to hospitals, distributing food at refugee camps, spreading public health information for UNICEF, and more all during a civil war.

The secret to Scouting’s success and impact is multifaceted and increasingly the topic of research from Tufts UniversityBaylor University, and WOSM itself.  A key component seems to be scouting’s emphasis on youth leadership. As Baden-Powell explained in 1922, Scouting’s essential unit is” the Patrol, consisting of six to eight boys or girls under the permanent responsible charge of one of their number as patrol leader.” Patrol leaders plan trips and meetings and set the agenda for the activities they do with their peers, including service projects. Young people are engaged in leadership on the regional, national, and international levels. Six of the 18 WOSM Committee members are necessarily under the age of

26. WOSM’s second largest event is designed specifically to inspire 18-25 year olds to take leadership in their countries. That’s not to mention programs, like the BSA’s National Youth Leadership Training program, that teach corporate leadership development trainings in a way that makes them immediately relevant to teenagers.

In fact, scouting wouldn’t exist if not for the enthusiastic initiative of young people. Scouting for Boys was written in 1908, originally as a program recommendation for the British Boy’s Brigade and other existing youth groups. It was immediately seized upon by independent boys and girls who organized their own patrols. The idea spread, first through the British Empire, reaching Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India by 1909, and then through the rest of the world. Chilean scouting started after a few educators and young people heard Baden-Powell talk on the subject in 1909. Brazil and Argentina followed the next year. Swedish Scouting was started by a sailor who found a passenger’s lost copy of Scouting for Boys during a storm. Belgian Scouting was founded by a physician whose son wanted to be a Scout. A Chicago Newspaperman started Scouting in the US after being helped through a London Fog by a young British scout. German patrols were formed after a British patrol went hiking through Germany. It was only in reaction to this movement that Baden-Powell organized the Scouts in Britain and, later, in the world.

The power of engaged young people hasn’t been lost to the rest of the world. In 2013, UN Secretary -General Ban Ki-Moon created the Envoy on Youth. Unlike UNICEF, the role of the Envoy on Youth is not to take care of young people but to mobilize them in addressing global issues. In a similar vein, the US Youth Observer to the UN is a young person whose job it is to connect the young people of the US with the peacebuilding goals of the UN. No one in recent years has better shown the ability of young people to force a conversation and inspire action like climate activist Greta Thunberg. 

There are 1.8 billion young people (ages 10-24) in the world today, the largest such population in history. 90% of those live in developing countries where they make up a substantial, if not majority, portion of their countries’ population. If there is any chance of ending hunger; halting climate change; reducing gender, racial, and cultural discrimination; or of making any progress towards world peace, it will undoubtably involve a massive, concerted effort. That effort may be beyond the human or financial resources of any business, country, or treaty organization. 

The UN has 97,000 active peacekeepers, the Peace Corps has 8,000 volunteers, Amnesty International works in 70 countries. In contrast, the Scouting Movement has, already mobilized, a force of over 50 million eager volunteers in 170 countries. Scouts aren’t the only ones helping the world, but they’ve tapped the most powerful resource for doing so: young people. If we want to change the world, we must also engage and empower young people.