Beyond simply following the 5,000 high school seniors to take stock of the challenges youth face as they transition into adulthood and the world of work, we also want to understand how these experiences can be mitigated by carefully-designed policy interventions.
Our randomized policy experiments cover a range of interventions that can foster resilience and socioeconomic integration. A recent Lancet study (2016) found that “building the assets and skills of adolescents can result in both immediate and long-term positive effects on the mental and physical health, economic development, and overall well-being of adolescents, their families, and communities.”
Specifically, we are interested in cultivating skills related to:
Agency & resilience
Avoiding risky behaviors
While many robust randomized control trails to evaluate the effectiveness of “soft skill” have been conducted in developed countries, the evidence is sparse in most developing country contexts. Our “soft skill” development interventions include (1) motivational messaging, (2) in school guest speakers from civil society and law enforcement institutions and (3) four different life-planning and resilience building programs. This range of interventions is scaled from easily deployable, very low cost programming (i.e. daily motivational text messages) to logistically most complex and costly programs (i.e. afterschool clubs). The details of each intervention are described below.
POSITIVE MOTIVATIONAL MESSAGING
Intervention 1. Positive motivational messaging.
The impetus for our motivational messaging intervention draws upon three key factors. First is the range of prior research, especially in the health and education fields, that suggests that suggests positive messaging can be a driver of behavioral change. However, most of these findings have been from developed country settings. The second, and related factor, is the fact that we can leverage a unique moment in time- nearly universal usage of cellphones among youth in Yaoundé. In the nationally representative 2014/15 Afrobarometer Survey, 92% of respondents age 15-29 report owing their own cell phone, a figure that jumps to 95% among urban youth (Afrobarometer 2017). This compares to data from the 2011 Cameroonian Demographic Health Survey, where only 88 percent of households had a cell phone (and most were not the personal phones of youth) (DHS 2017).
The third factor is our contact this Spring with Mr. Ralph Marston, who has been running a positive messaging website since 1995. The Daily Motivator is a website that publishes a brief motivational message each Monday through Saturday on the web and by e-mail. Each daily message is about 200 words long and can easily be read in a minute or two. The Daily Motivator provides “a fast, regular and reliable positive boost each day”. Mr. Marston graciously agreed to allow our project free access to his daily motivational messages, which will be translated into French, and altered, if needed, to fit the cultural context. His messages (available at www.greatday.com ), relate closely to the type of life resilience skills we seek to foster through our efforts. For example, the message for June 27, 2017 reads:
Knowledge earned through experience
You cannot change the past but you can learn from it. What went well, what went wrong, what would you do different next time?
Don’t obsess over the past, don’t expect to get it back, don’t expect to receive a do-over. But don’t ignore it either.
The value of experience is in what you’re able to learn. From massive success, from heartbreaking failure, from everything in between, there’s a lot of great, useful information.
You won’t come across the same exact situation again. Yet you will face very similar challenges.
Knowing what works and what doesn’t work, enables you to move successfully through those challenges. Knowing you’ve done it before, regardless of the prior outcome, is a confidence booster with no equal.
Look back occasionally, realize and pay attention to what you’ve learned. Apply the knowledge you’ve earned through experience, and be more effective than ever before.
For the project, our field staff will translate the daily message, and send to one-half of the survey population (randomly selected). We will assess impact via both wave 2 of the survey in May 2018, but also through focus groups with students who receive the messages. The potential of this type of intervention could be massive in the region, given how inexpensive it would be to run.
SECURITY & CIVIC SPEAKERS
Intervention 2. Security & Civic Speakers
This Spring, we worked to expand our network on contacts in fields related to security and civic life in Cameroon. Through these efforts, we have cultivated the following list of speakers who have agreed to visit several schools and give talks that focus on two themes: 1) the speaker’s professional lives and insights related to security issues that they have gained through their career and 2) how they reached their professional and personal goals, including lessons they would give to their “younger” selves. We are tasking Mr. Steve Oyono, director of Comm’Actions, a prime public-relations firm to build a list of speakers and organize the speaking series. Colonel Gedeon YOUSSA of the Cameroon Army is a high-ranking official with great investigative experience, and he will provide all the needed administrative data and will conduct field work on the hottest spots of terrorist activities in the Northern province of Cameroon. He will also help recruit speakers from law enforcement services.
GOAL PLANNING & RESILIENCE BUILDING PROGRAMS
Intervention 3 (a-c) Goal planning and resilience building programs
A rich body of literature in the social sciences highlights the importance of “soft skills” training for children’s outcomes, at the individual level, and national trajectories as well. Non-cognitive skills are associated with improved labor market outcomes, employment and health (Heckman et al., 2006). Soft skills programs are not common in the region, but important for countries, as “building the assets and skills of adolescents can result in both immediate and long-term positive effects on the mental and physical health, economic development, and overall well-being of adolescents, their families, and communities” (Lance 2016). More recently, Ciocanel et al.’s 2017 meta analysis of 26 randomized controlled trials evaluating soft skill interventions in industrialized countries found significant program effect on academic achievement and psychological adjustment, including decreases in emotional distress and increases in positive self-perceptions. In light of this, we have developed a four specific of after-school intervention activities that, in theory, should foster a range of skills related to goal setting, agency/resilience building, networking and avoiding risky behavior. The programs include:
Personal security and resilience training
Golf and networking training
Professional socialization (in either law enforcement OR care settings OR media settings.
Language and communication training
Our field staff is developing the programming details for each. We are especially interested in having a range of programs that spans from more “intellectual” activities (communication training) to “physical” activities (personal security training). We also have included activities that range from those more likely to be associated with the upper class (golf and language) to more middle class activities (physical workouts).
FUNCTIONAL FITNESS TRAINING PROGRAMS (IN COLLABORATION WITH CORNELL WELLNESS)
Intervention 3D: Functional Fitness Training Programs
The standard approaches for harnessing the “demographic dividend” have focused on cultivating education and employment opportunities for youth. However, beyond ensuring this generation has appropriate workforce training, policymakers should also be concerned about the functional physical abilities of these future workers and citizens. Despite being a continent more often thought of for issues related to malnutrition and hunger, there are rapidly emerging challenges at the other end of the weight spectrum.
Globally, 25% of all overweight or obese children live in Africa (WHO 2017). Beyond the burden itself, the rapid pace of the obesity transition in the region is especially concerning. From 1990 to 2014, the number of overweight children doubled- from 5.4 to 10.3 million (WHO 2017). In South Africa, only 1 % of children age 8-11 were overweight or obese in 1994- a figure that rose to 17 and 11 percent for boys and girls, respectively, by 2006.
The trends and magnitude of this health crisis are similar in Cameroon; Among children under age 5, 6.7 % were overweight in 2014- putting the country on par with nations like the USA and China.
Among older children, a 2017 study by Chouken et al. used a multi-staged cluster random sampling of 1343 children from high) and low socioeconomic status schools in Douala and found that prevalence of overweight/obesity was 12.5% (13.2% in girls, 11.8% in boys) (Chouken et al 2017). Moreover, their work suggests that this is not merely a “poverty question”- the risk of overweight/obesity was 2.40 higher for children in the higher socioeconomic status schools. The authors posit that this association may be mediated by “sweet drink consumption, passive means of travel to school and not doing sport at schools."
The purpose of this program is to test the potential of functional fitness training to engage youth and battle back the obesity epidemic on the rise in West Africa. The theory is that school-based functional fitness programs in Cameroon can enhance security through a variety of channels, that include immediate health effects, personal development, social integration and civic participation and international exchange. The proposed fitness program (also referred to as “cross-fit” style training) is ideal for low-resource settings. It requires minimal space and equipment, much of which can be constructed on-site. A sense of community is nurtured through training youth in groups, coupled with opportunities to participate in national and international cross-fit competitions.
For this effort, we are drawing upon training modules that provide examples of different regimens depending on participant fitness level and functional limitations. These modules were developed by Ms. Keri Johnson, a Health & Wellness Specialist at Cornell University, who has 15 years of experience in developing functional fitness. She is collaborating with local trainer and National Insitute of Youth and Sports Professor Henri Tchala Owona to develop programming for a youth summer camp that will be held June- August 2018. During a week-long visit in June 2017, Ms. Johnon gave a presentation to over 200 students and staff at INJS to introduce the concept and benefits of functional fitness training. Her talk was so compelling that she was invited by a national senator, Dr. Yves Matin to speak to the National Assembly's panel on youth.