International poverty study’s lessons for SA

09 April 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Read time 10 min.
A new book on poverty, co-authored by UCT and University of Oxford academics, has lessons for South Africa. <b>Photo</b>&nbsp;Ibrahem Bana,Pexels.
A new book on poverty, co-authored by UCT and University of Oxford academics, has lessons for South Africa. Photo Ibrahem Bana,Pexels.

Two University of Cape Town (UCT) academics joined forces with peers from across the world to deliver the recently published Tracing the Consequences of Child Poverty: Evidence from the Young Lives Study in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.

Emeritus Associate Professor Andy Dawes and Professor Colin Tredoux, both from UCT’s Department of Psychology, co-authored the book alongside the University of Oxford’s Professor Jo Boyden and Dr Paul Dornan. Boyden is the director of Young Lives, the study on which Tracing the Consequences is based.

Young Lives tracked the development of children growing up in poverty in the first decades of the 21st century, with the aim of shedding light on the causes and consequences in order to inform intervention strategies.

The team, which studied the lives of 12 000 young people from across the four countries, collected detailed information on a range of topics, including household wealth and service access, health, nutrition, education and psychosocial well-being. The study is unique in that it followed two cohorts of children born eight years apart.

The first measurement took place in 2002 when the older cohort was an average eight years old, and the younger cohort aged between six and 18 months. Four subsequent waves of both quantitative and qualitative data were collected until the children were young adults.

The study results turned up both variations and similarities across the four rapidly changing societies, but consistently illustrated the critical roles of household economic well-being, access to household services, familial factors, and education systems in shaping children’s development.

The key findings are summarised in Tracing the Consequences, which was published last month, with the authors highlighting the implications for child-focused policy and programmes across the countries concerned, as well as other low- and middle-income countries.

And while South Africa was not part of the study, the findings are highly relevant for the country, according to Dawes, who stressed that intersecting inequalities undermine human development from before infancy.

Early and middle childhood

Children from marginalised groups, from the poorest households, rural areas and with less-educated parents are, most frequently, those with poorer development outcomes, he pointed out.

The findings were clear that “disadvantages are evident before birth”, and continue in terms of compromised maternal mental wellness, poor access to quality preschool education and to lack of basic services.


“The poorest children often have the [fewest] opportunities to learn in school and at home.”

Attending preschool is a factor that significantly impacts the child’s development, the study showed. Here again, the mother plays a role: Better-educated mothers tend to put their children into preschools, and those who attend preschool do better. The quality of the preschool is also important.

In Ethiopia, very few of the poorest children attend any sort of preschool. In India, there is a drift towards private preschools (and primary schools) because of declining faith in the public system.

“But they aren’t necessarily better quality,” said Dawes.

Another threat to growth is a lack of access to basic services, particularly water and sanitation.

Children who grow up without access to clean water and sanitation frequently contract diseases such as diarrhoea, which can result in nutrition deficiencies and stunting.

“And stunted children tend to have stunted neurological growth,” Dawes explained.

In terms of middle childhood, he said improved access to education did not necessarily translate into improved learning outcomes, particularly for poorer children. This is mainly a function of poor-quality teaching and learning environments, and having to help with household work. In addition, they have parents who are unable to help them with their homework, with a lack of electricity often adding a further challenge.

Therefore, “the poorest children often have the [fewest] opportunities to learn in school and at home”.

Among interventions to boost children’s growth and development, Dawes named the importance of cash transfer programmes (like South Africa’s Child Support Grant) and India’s midday meal scheme.

Furthermore, schools can assist by taking into account family responsibilities and not punish children who arrive late at school because they must help milk cows in the morning. After-school programmes can provide poor children with space to study when this is not available at home.

International poverty study’s lessons for SA
Prof Colin Tredoux and Emeritus Assoc Prof Andy Dawes co-authored a new book examining the consequences of child poverty. Photo Supplied.

Adolescence and youth

In adolescence, growth stunting declined. However, rates of overweight children were of concern, particularly in Peru.

“In Peru, one of the more disturbing things is obesity in adolescence and that’s a problem we’ve got here in South Africa,” said Dawes.

Poorer children, even in rural Peru, have increased access to junk food. As a growing public health problem, this raises the question of how to effectively manage the nutritional status of adolescents.

Adolescence is also a time when many children leave their schooling, especially boys, the study found. This was due to poverty-related reasons, including household responsibilities, dampened aspirations and school-based violence. The latter is an issue particularly in Ethiopia and Peru.

Poorer children, particularly boys, are often forced to leave school to help support their families, they found.


“If you don’t have a reputation within the mainstream, there is this alternative. In South Africa [gangs] are very important; it’s very prevalent.”

Early school-leaving can also be attributed to a reduced incentive to remain in school, Dawes pointed out. Aspirations become blunted by factors such as poor school performance or the inability to attend school as regularly as their peers because of household responsibilities.

He said a finding that is of particular relevance to South Africa is the relationship between youth in poverty and antisocial behaviour. While this relationship may exist in the other countries that were part of the study, it was measured only In Peru.

Tredoux explained that when a young person falls behind and fails to match their peers in terms of verbal and quantitative abilities, antisocial behaviour may result.

This includes “alternate reputation acquisition” or “negative peer affiliations”, such as with gangs. In Peru, poor children can end up following this route because this provides an alternate source of positive identity: reputation.

“If you don’t have a reputation within the mainstream, there is this alternative. In South Africa [gangs] are a significant phenomenon; it’s very prevalent,” he said.

Also important to note with reference to South Africa is the finding that girls who stay in school longer show reduced risk for early marriage and childbearing. This has positive knock-on effects for the next generation.

Finally, by the age of 22 across all the countries except India where the rate was lower, more than 90% of youth were either studying or in some form of work. Those working were mostly male (except in Vietnam), and less likely to have higher levels of education. Working conditions were also often poor – except, again, in Vietnam.

Bucking the trend

While the overall trajectory is negative, two of the Young Lives team members, Virginia Morrow and Gina Crivello, spoke of three key elements necessary to see youth in poverty “buck the trend”. First is the individual child.

“You could argue there is a kind of temperament difference; there’s a more resilient coping style,” Dawes explained.

This is a child who accesses resources when they are available.

Second, this child must be placed in an enabling environment where, despite poverty, they receive the continued support of older kin.

The third and final element is the connection between that enabling environment and community resources, which can be the school.

The school can provide a circle of support and sources of enablement. This can include recognising talent beyond only the intellectual and providing affirmations for identity. If successful, this causes the trajectory to go the other way.

“That’s difficult to think about on a policy level because there are all these happenstances, but the basic question is how enabling are the environments of our poor children?” he said.

Policy implications

The Tracing the Consequences co-authors emphasised five key priorities to assist policymakers and improve life chances of children living in poverty.

First is the provision of “enabling environments across childhood”. This includes social protection that should begin with the poorest families with the youngest children.

Second is to “start strong in early childhood”. According to the findings, if a government is to invest, it is essential to support early childhood. But a key message in the book is that enabling environments for development should continue throughout childhood and adolescence. Environments need to be nurturing and safe, psychosocial support is indicated for vulnerable mothers, and there should be equal access to quality preschools.


“How are we equipping young people within a very tough labour market?”

The third priority is to invest in teachers and schools. There needs to be a push for good-quality teachers and for enabling school environments. Countries must continue with school feeding programmes to counter malnutrition, but additional interventions are needed to also address obesity.

This leads to the fourth priority, which is to support and enhance adolescent health. Of importance here is preventing antisocial behaviour and affiliations, while promoting quality education.

The final priority is job creation – “targeted investments and active labour market policies”.

Dawes said that this priority must include “vocational training that increases access to decent jobs and eradicates the worst forms of work”. This requires a shift of consciousness.

“How are we equipping young people within a very tough labour market? That is a question we should be asking ourselves.”


  • Dawes and Tredoux will discuss the study in greater depth tomorrow, 10 April, from 17:00 to 19:00 at the Kramer Lecture Theatre 3, Middle Campus, UCT. For more information and to RSVP, please email

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.