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World Bank report on children and youth reveals the social cost to economic downturn

On June 18, 2012, the World Bank launched a report, Children and Youth in Crisis: Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks, written by an interdisciplinary group of economists, human developmental psychologists and sociologists including Michèle Lamont (Harvard University), Co-Director of CIFAR’s Successful Societies.

In the report, the authors make the case that human development is at the core of economic development. Therefore, a broad multidisciplinary approach is needed to evaluate the full social costs of economic downturn and to identify ways to mitigate its impact on vulnerable populations. Children and youth, they contend, are at especially vulnerable stages of their personal development due to the significance of complex interacting systems and settings, from the neurobiological to the psychological and social. Thus, crises can have life-long consequences.

The report reveals how these vulnerable populations cope with changes and stresses and how the responses of those affected differ depending on the society in which they live. The report recommends some new types of interventions, but also additional components or particular design features to improve the (cost-)effectiveness of more traditional approaches. The report provides additional tools policy makers and practitioners can implement to protect children and youth during, and encourage positive adaptation after, crises at various stages of their development.

The interventions identified in the report address age-specific developmental needs ranging from nutrition to mental health, and address not only the developing person, but also caregivers and the greater environment. For example, a government response to crisis needs to ensure adequate nutrition for pregnant women and very young children, while also promoting a healthy mother-infant relationship in the face of hardship when stress and mental health issues are on the rise. As another example, the report shows that transfers to households in need can be combined with counseling and parenting support. Particular activities in school or after-school settings can encourage socioemotional and behavioural learning. This might involve providing tools and techniques to teachers to better manage classroom dynamics. Alternatively, to help young people to successfully transition to the world of work they need to develop productive aspirations and vocational identities, and confidence in their ability to plan and achieve their goals.

The World Bank invited Dr. Lamont to contribute to the current report after representatives heard her presentation on CIFAR Successful Societies program’s first collective volume, Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture Affect Health, in May 2010. For her contribution to the World Bank report, Dr. Lamont drew widely from ideas developed in the program’s forthcoming volume Social Resilience in the Neo-Liberal Age. “The ideas from our book – that culture and institutions are essential for processes of integration and for fostering social resilience – are very much at the centre of the World Bank report,” says Dr. Lamont.

In the report, Dr. Lamont and colleagues develop a conceptual framework that enables a more comprehensive analysis of how economic shocks affect young people. Interdisciplinary integration of concepts and models enables a multi-level dynamic approach to understand how contexts at various levels of the ‘bioecological system’ mediate and moderate the impact of shocks on human development at different stages of life. While more traditional policy responses focus on household resources, this conceptual framework provides a more nuanced view, and thus opens up a range of alternatives for intervention. For example, we know that economic crisis can create financial pressures for some families, affecting their ability to provide food and other investments. Yet, studies indicate that even perceived threats, such as unemployment, can cause stress and a deterioration of family functioning, which has a direct impact on children’s development. Such stress can be moderated through sources of social support.

Dr. Lamont specifically illustrates how cultural frameworks and institutions can build social resilience, or the capacity for groups of people to sustain and increase their well-being during challenges. “My contribution was to include self-concept as a dimension in the framework,” says Dr. Lamont. “The way people make sense of what is going on in their lives has to do with the cultural frameworks that are made available to them. We know for instance that, especially in the US, there is a tendency for people to blame themselves for their inability to find jobs, instead of thinking about the broad social changes that may explain their position. This individualistic thinking can make it harder to sustain subjective well-being in the face of a challenge like job loss. By changing cultural frameworks, we can help strengthen people’s integration in society and foster resilience to crises. “

In order to address the impact of crisis on youth, governments or NGOs should not only provide resources that lead to more stable employment, but also cultivate different cultural frameworks, says Lamont. “The right cultural frameworks will build social resilience and give individuals and communities a better ability to respond to challenges and sustain and advance their well-being during those challenges.”

The World Bank held an event in June, to coincide with the launch of the report, to share the findings through workshops and panel discussions with representatives from the World Bank, academic community, and charity organizations. The report is gaining international attention for its novel focus on ways in which the world can help vulnerable children and youth everywhere grow into ‘healthy, productive, and effective citizens’.

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