Education and Skills

This unique, 20-year study followed the lives of 12,000 children in the developing world. Here’s what it discovered

image of children learning in Africa

The University of Oxford’s Young Lives is designed to increase understanding of childhood poverty and help create appropriate reforms. Image: Unsplash/Ismail Salad Hajji dirir

Natalie Marchant
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • A 20-year study led by the University of Oxford attempts to understand the causes and consequences of childhood poverty.
  • Young Lives tracked the development of thousands of children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Viet Nam.
  • Conclusions include that childhood poverty is multidimensional and that access to education doesn’t necessarily equate to a better life.

A 20-year groundbreaking study that followed 12,000 people from infancy to young adulthood has revealed huge changes in poverty, education and expectations in the developing world.

The University of Oxford’s Young Lives study is a long-term research project that seeks to understand what causes childhood poverty, how certain policies affect children and, with those findings, inform the development of future policies in order to reduce child poverty.

Researchers tracked the development of thousands of children in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states), Peru and Viet Nam in what turned out to be the longest-running survey of its kind ever undertaken in the developing world.

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Significant improvement in living standards

Based on face-to-face interviews with the same children every three to four years, the researchers’ findings have provided a wealth of data on how children’s lives have changed over the past two decades.

Researchers in the study only consulted with children, “who are, after all, experts in their own lives,” as the study’s deputy director, Dr Marta Favara, pointed out. This focus was key to the researchers' findings.

“Most studies about poverty only speak to adults. But children and parents don’t always have the same experiences or think alike,” said Favara.

Additionally, the study recently showed significant improvements in living standards for many Young Lives families, alongside rapid economic growth and poverty reduction.

chart showing an increase in living standards over the 20-year study
An increase in living standards was noted during the course of the 20-year study. Image: Oxford University

In Ethiopia, extreme poverty dropped from 61% in 1996 to 24% in 2016, while many families reported having better access to basic services, electricity, sanitation and water.

In Peru, young people’s families saw access to electricity rise from 60% in 2002 to 96% in 2016, while in Viet Nam it increased from 55% to 97% over the same period.

The study is set to continue, in particular to see how the pandemic has impacted the children’s lives. Here are the seven key conclusions researchers have reached so far.

1. Early childhood experiences set the blueprint

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital, with a malnourished infant more likely to have weaker cognitive abilities by the age of five.

In addition, a child who arrives at school already disadvantaged is likely to fall behind as they grow up, researchers say.

2. Poverty affects everything

Childhood poverty is multidimensional in both its causes and consequences, affecting every aspect of a child’s life and limiting their potential.

Poorer homes are more likely to experience adverse events – such as environmental shocks – than richer ones, but are less likely to have the capacity to withstand them without a negative impact on children.

3. Teenage years offer a ‘second chance’

In contrast to assumptions that prolonged malnutrition permanently impairs cognitive development, the study found that children who physically recover as they age also perform better in cognitive tests.

Early action in adolescence can also reverse the effect of earlier malnutrition on poor learning, researchers said.

4. School attendance does not always equate to life changes

Of the children surveyed, 40% had not established basic literacy by the age of eight, despite attending school, with many only having access to poor-quality education.

5. Early marriage and childbearing impact life chances

The study concluded that young mothers’ education and employment chances were adversely affected by early marriage and childbearing, along with the health and cognitive development of their children.

In 2016, it was estimated that 47% of girls in India were married before their 18th birthday and almost 60% of married girls participating in the Young Lives study had already given birth by the time they’d turned 19.

6. Violence towards children has a far-reaching impact on their lives

Violence is a part of everyday life for many children at home, in school, in the community and while working. The study found that it undermines children’s wellbeing, engagement with schooling and learning.

a chart showing children's experience of violence
Violence is a part of life for many children. Image: Oxford Department of International Development (ODID)

Young Lives researchers teamed up with Unicef for a 2017 report on violence in childhood and found that, worldwide, nearly three out of four children – or 1.7 billion – experience violence each year.

In Peru, the collaboration with Unicef led to significant improvements in this area, including the passing of a new law banning physical and humiliating punishment of children in all settings.


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7. Not all work is bad for children

Some families rely on their children’s financial contributions and, when safe, their work can bring important rewards for all members of a household, the researchers noted. However, they said, no child should undertake unsafe work or any that prevents them from going to school.

The Young Lives findings come just months after the World Bank warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could push an extra 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, wiping out three years of progress in global poverty reduction.

In addition, the World Bank and others have also warned of a learning crisis caused by the pandemic, with COVID-19 keeping at least 1.6 billion students out of school likely to deepen learning gaps and slow the reduction of learning poverty.

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