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Merit360: a programme that empowers youth to address the Sustainable Development Goals

Over 16 days in August and September, I was lucky enough to be a participant on the first ever Merit360 programme in the United States – a programme that will continue to be delivered until 2030 in partnership with the United Nations.

Merit360 is a programme to engage global youth to tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The world has more people today under the age of 30 than over it but young people are still often missed from important global decisions despite the advantages of their contribution. 360 young people from 85 countries were selected for the programme. Since May, I have been preparing to work on SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities.

Setting off for the airport with a mixture of apprehension and excitement, I tried to imagine what the next fortnight would be like. The last few months have consisted of Skype calls, emails, fundraising and research. In only a few hours I would be finally meeting the other Action Plan Executors (APEs, the name for participants) at our meeting point in New York City before heading to the Indian Head Camp in rural Pennsylvania.

Our first night set the scene for the programme: hard-work with support from inspirational experts. In the evening began our first official activity; The Campfire of Connection. Listening to Chris Arnold, the CEO of World Merit, demonstrated his passion for Merit360 not only for our programme but for the future programmes to come. This programme is not about hypothetical solutions, Merit360 is about implementing real solutions. The UN Envoy for Youth, Ahmed Alhendawi, echoed these sentiments in his speech. Recognising the need for fresh ideas to solve the world’s problems, he stressed his support for Merit360 and the work we are doing. Mr. Alhendawi was one of the first of nearly 70 speakers over the course of the programme; from spoken word poets, to activists, to founders of NGOs, all speakers imparted their wisdom which broke up our working days.

The work was done in our SDG groups. Our Action Plan was split into three components:

  1. raise awareness and engagement of the Sustainable Development Goals among the world’s 1.8 billion young people
  2. Partner with local and global projects related to our SDG
  3. Create our own project focused on our SDG

The first Component was the simplest, but took the most time as our team (with representatives from 17 nations) learnt to work together effectively. Utilising our individual skills, we quickly develop a network of online and offline resources to spread awareness of structural inequalities.

In my SDG group, we picked the local initiative of the Living Wage Foundation – a UK based organisation that campaigns for employers and governments to ensure workers are paid a wage that is necessary for a decent standard of living – and Anant’s global initiative of Slum Soccer and the Homeless World Cup – a programme that supports kids through football, giving them skills and mentors.

Our Component 3 was the most complex. Over a 48-hour period, we worked on building on our pre-programme research to develop a Business Model Plan to reduce inequalities. The 48-hours was fortunately broken up with workshops on four elements: create, brand, pitch and hustle. This gave us a break from the deep and complex discussions to frame our ideas in the context of our pitch. We developed the idea of ‘Equalify’. This is a physical space that provides information that connects people to services that cater to social and economic requirements in that area. There are many organisations worldwide that are tackling a variety of inequalities. However, these organisations often cannot reach all disconnected individuals. There are also many people struggling with discrimination and taboo subjects. Equalify Hubs provides the physical space and recognisable ‘brand’ or organisation that enables communities to run initiatives to meet its own needs whilst signposting individuals to more specific NGOs. Partnership organisations that support our mission through volunteers, resources, and funds – as well as making a commitment to equality – were get our official accreditation ‘Equalified’. But this is just a short snippet into our plan, throughout our time at Camp we developed this idea into a real plan for the next year.

Although our time was packed with work and speakers, we were able to enjoy some of the perks of Camp life. From swimming in the lake, to dancing to music from around the globe, to simply sitting round the campfire together; we were given ample opportunity to socialise and learn from each other.

After 10 days at camp, we returned to New York staying at Hostelling International prepping for our day at the United Nations. Each SDG group chose one representative to pitch one of our Components to the UN. We chose team member Liv to pitch our Equalify project. There was also an opportunity to sit on a panel about inequalities with one member from SDG5 and one from SDG10 to speak with human rights activist Mandy Sanghera. I was selected by my team to speak on this panel.

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The day was in the Trusteeship Council Chamber. Between the pitches in the morning, we had several speakers. It was fascinating to hear the other SDG groups’ ideas in their entirety. The projects were so varied and innovative that the audience was captivated throughout. You can read the pitches presented to the UN in their entirety in this Action Plan.

In the afternoon I sat on the inequalities panel. We discussed difficult types of inequalities that we had personally encountered and how the cross-cultural exchange of Merit360 had affected our outlook. I spoke about my own experience of inequalities in the UK; how the top professions are dominated by privileged graduates. Through the right contacts, cultural capital, and the increase in unpaid internships, privileged graduates are more likely to get top positions than the less privileged but same ability counterparts. At the end, my ‘take away’ is that although all the Changemakers had worked extremely hard and thus they had been selected for Merit360, there are still many young people around the world without the same privilege to get here. From cost issues to education, and to even the many people who were rejected for Visas to the US with no explanation.

Before we knew it, the day had ended. We spent the next couple of days enjoying ourselves and the sights of New York City. We also planned how we would keep connected, both as friends and as co-founders of an exciting new project.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the entire World Merit team for supporting us throughout the programme, the incredible speakers who were always happy to answer questions, my fellow inspirational and hard-working participants and finally the Hatfield Trust who, although World Merit covered the majority of the costs of the programme, supported me through the Howard Phelps Award for my return flights.

 I am happy to answer any questions about my experience of the programme and I can be contacted at megkneafsey@dunelm.org.uk

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