An international team of researchers – including Dr Elona Toska, Professor Cathy Ward and Siyanai Zhou from the University of Cape Town (UCT) – led by Oxford University, has been awarded a five-year grant to tackle the most pressing issues facing African adolescents.
The Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescents Hub is one of 12 research hubs being set up by the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) and funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). All of the hubs support research that addresses challenges faced by developing countries and makes the world safer, healthier and more prosperous. UCT is involved in two of the hubs.
About the Hub
The Oxford University–UCT hub is a multi-disciplinary research initiative to help African adolescents achieve their potential. It is co-directed by Professor Lucie Cluver of Oxford University and honorary professor at UCT’s Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health.
“I am honoured and excited to be leading a UKRI GCRF Hub,” says Cluver. “This is a chance to work together with excellent academics, policy-makers and adolescents in Africa, with a common goal and mission.”
“This is a chance to work together with excellent academics, policy-makers and adolescents in Africa, with a common goal and mission.”
UCT academics Professor Cathy Ward from the Department of Psychology, Dr Elona Toska from the Centre for Social Science Research and Department of Sociology, and Siyanai Zhou from the AIDS and Society Research Unit are the UCT-based researchers. They will lead a team of eight based at UCT and provide capacity-sharing opportunities for more than 35 early-career researchers across 15 countries in Africa, where the Hub’s partner institutions are based.
“Our focus is supporting adolescents across the continent to reach their potential over multiple aspects of their lives beyond health,” explains Toska, who notes that Africa is currently experiencing a population boom that will see the number of adolescents on the continent double by 2050.
“Adolescence is a time of immense change and transition: young people are presented with countless opportunities, but they are also exposed to complex vulnerabilities and considerable risks,” says Zhou. “Not only are they experiencing physical growth – in the body and the brain – they are negotiating the social and emotional issues that go hand-in-hand with adolescence.”
Working with collaborators, including adolescents themselves, the Hub aims to identify combinations of services, programmes and policies that most efficiently and cost-effectively help adolescents.
By testing different combinations of interventions – such as malaria prevention, business skills and violence prevention – the researchers will identify specific combinations that boost adolescents’ outcomes across several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): nutrition, health, schooling, employment, gender equality and safety.
“Adolescence is a time of immense change and transition: young people are presented with countless opportunities, but they are also exposed to complex vulnerabilities and considerable risks.”
The Hub will thus provide policy-makers with the evidence they need to choose programmes that work, are cost-effective and scalable, while also accessible to adolescents themselves.
Identifying accelerator synergies
Creating solutions that accelerate positive outcomes for African youths requires identifying interventions that have multiple benefits.
“We have evidence, for example, that supporting an adolescent girl or young woman to remain in school for as long as possible is associated with a reduction in unintended pregnancy, as well as a decreased risk of contracting HIV,” explains Toska.
“In addition, the more time these young women spend in school, the more employable they are in the long run. This addresses some of the structural drivers at the core of inequitable sexual and romantic relationships.
“And, if they are part of a school feeding scheme, it’s likely that they will be healthier because they are properly nourished.”
This example shows how a single intervention – keeping girls in school – can have many positive outcomes. This is an accelerator, a term adopted by the United Nations Development Programme to describe policies or programmes that improve multiple SDGs concurrently.
“There is pretty decent evidence around a few of these cause–effect accelerators – but we aim to identify more,” she continues.
Accelerator synergies are combinations of interventions that work alongside each other to have a greater – accelerated – impact across multiple SDGs.
“We have evidence, for example, that supporting an adolescent girl or young woman to remain in school for as long as possible is associated with a reduction in unintended pregnancy, as well as a decreased risk of contracting HIV.”
Using the example above, a parenting programme might complement efforts to keep girls in school by supporting parents with communication and problem-solving skills that ensure adolescents receive the care they need, explains Ward. In combination, these two programmes may have a greater impact on improving multiple SDGs.
The way forward
The Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescents Hub will operate as a combination of five work packages. The packages will be run in collaboration with 54 partner organisations from a range of fields and across 15 African countries.
“By bringing together people from different disciplines, we’re essentially cross-pollinating our ideas and approaches to analysis,” Toska says. “And by involving the young people that stand to benefit from the Hub’s findings, we are giving them the chance to get involved in a more structured and valuable way.”
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