by Andrew Dawes and Paul Dornan
13th August 2019

Andy Dawes

Paul Dornan

What matters most in how poverty shapes children’s wellbeing and development? How can data inform social policy and approaches to improving outcomes for poorer children? What makes evidence useful?

Young Lives has contributed powerful findings on the multiple impacts of poverty on the young. Using life course analysis from the Young Lives study of 12,000 children growing up in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam over the past 15 years, Tracing the Consequences of Child Poverty: Evidence from the Young Lives study of Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam (available Open Access here), examines how poverty affects children’s development in low and middle income countries, and how policy has been used to improve their lives.

The consequences of poverty cascade across children’s developing competencies as they move through childhood and adolescence. For example, chronic under-nutrition in early childhood impacts brain development, which compromises cognitive functioning. That in turn results in poor school progress (compounded further by poor quality education), ultimately reducing prospects for future employment (and human capital for societies).

The study identified key opportunities for disrupting this negative cascade: provide poor families with the services and resources they need to ensure their children have a healthy start in life, get an education that matches that enjoyed by those who are better off, and make sure they have the skills to land a decent job.

Armed with research evidence relevant to policy from Young Lives and many other studies, policy and programmes have led to progress for children in many areas – but the progress is not enough. In low and middle income countries, stunting rates remain stubbornly high. And while millions more children are in school, the quality of their education continues to fail them. Why? Because, sadly, the evidence does not necessarily translate to policy.  Ensuring quality evidence is taken forward in policy and programme implementation requires not only a clear and timely articulation of what the research shows, but also matching those findings with a sense of what it might be possible to deliver. And what is possible depends on many things, not least political will and human and material capacity.

The central point in this post is that, while researchers provide evidence, it is others who design and implement policies and programmes. What makes evidence useful to them? For our findings to have influence, they have to be useful to those in a position to make things happen. And researchers need to be mindful that these people face binding constraints that shape what is possible in their context (resources, capacity to deliver and so on).

Our book is about synthesising Young Lives findings, demonstrating the many things that matter in the lives of children. The answer to ‘how’ we might make a significant difference for the majority of poor children is progressive realisation of better policy and programming.

We offer three reflections:

1. Prioritise young children
That is not to say later investments do not matter, our evidence shows that they do. But ifchildren’s development is compromised from the start, then it is hard (or impossible) for them to catch up. The first priority is to create a strong foundation of child development which can be built on by other investments.

2. Address the challenge of siloed policy and delivery of children’s services in ways that fit local circumstances and resources
It is commonplace to call for ‘service integration’. That is all well and good, but that advice almost immediately runs into major delivery challenges in most low and middle income countries where systems are already more than stretched. Here we advise understanding the local situation and building on what already exists, and using pragmatic solutions for local integration – for example, encouraging local educational and health services to work together on growth monitoring and school feeding.

3. A focus on more effective monitoring as a strategy not to burden but to support quality services to reach those in greatest need
Back to the data revolution. If service planners do not know who and where those people are, the chance of them being effectively reached seems remote. There has been a considerable recent interest in experimentation in development programmes. That is great. But for change, a good idea is only as good as its implementation. In the book we identify that the impact (the ‘effect size’) of social experiments is often larger than of expanded public programmes. The effort going into an experiment may be difficult to maintain at the scale of a public programme – so the monitoring exercise can’t stop at the development of an idea. It has to be iterative and continual through programmes.

Of course if this were easy, it would have been done already. But it is a salutary point that interventions to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are, or should be, well underway. The first SDG babies are on the cusp of starting school and the goals have 11 years to run until, before under goal 1 ‘poverty will end in all its forms everywhere’. The SDGs evaluation process, the annual High Level Political Forum, took place in July with a theme of Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality. Tackling child poverty is central to achieving that objective. There is no time to waste, but necessary haste can’t get in the way of solutions which will work and will last.

Research can point the way towards more effective solutions, but its actionability depends on what is nationally and locally possible. In relation to child poverty that means greater societal efforts for children generally, prioritising the youngest children, building from what exists already and a stronger understanding of where difference is actually being made.


See also: Connecting evidence to policy and practice: what works now?


Tracing the Consequences of Child Poverty, by Jo Boyden, Andrew Dawes, Paul Dornan and Colin Tredoux is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £11.99.

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Image Credit: © Young Lives/Nguyen Quang Thai; Trinh Van Dang.