Developing Responsible and Fulfilled Global Youth: Towards a Multi-National Longitudinal Study of the Compassion International Model of Promoting Positive Youth Development among Children Living in Poverty

Principal Investigator: Richard M. Lerner
Co-Investigators: Jacqueline V. Lerner, Pamela Ebstyne King, Kara Powell, Alistair Sim, Guillermo Iraheta, Elizabeth Dowling
Project Dates: Fall 2016 – 2021

Research Purpose and Compassion International Partnership
More than one billion children across the globe live in persistent and pervasive poverty, with about 400 million living in extreme poverty. Such marginalization creates an often self-fulfilling trap of hopelessness that greatly diminishes chances to thrive or grow into healthy, fulfilled, and responsible adults. Adding to poverty’s cruel attack on generation after generation of human lives, this waste of human capital has dire effects on geopolitics, the world’s economic system, and global peace.

The holistic youth development programs of Compassion International (CI)) constitute a powerful, evidence-based (Wydick, Glewwe, & Rutledge, 2013), ecologically valid, scalable, and sustainable remedy to the global catastrophe represented by the plight of the world’s population of poor children. Compassion’s programs integrate and uniquely capitalize on (1) a strengths-based approach to youth development reflected in the positive youth development (PYD) model, which has been successful in promoting thriving among diverse American youth and is now being adopted in almost two dozen nations in both the global north and the global south, and (2) the documented importance of sustained religious faith as a unique and fundamental asset in the lives of all people and, perhaps especially, youth from the poorest ecological settings.

CI’s integrative model offers over 1.6 million of the world’s poorest children a developmentally and context-sensitive life journey marked by personal fulfillment (health, well-being, faith, and spiritual richness) and responsibility (to self, family, and civil society, and God).

Research Plan
Building upon recent independent, peer-reviewed evidence that CI’s programs produce sustained impact in adults (Wydick, et al., 2013), we will uniquely study the longitudinal development of youth involved in CI’s programs in three nations, starting in El Salvador fall of 2016. In each nation we will compare the development of CI program participants to youth who are not participating in CI’s programs to identify what works, with what children, in what context, over what time period.

The results of this project will demonstrate how a proven model synthesizing a faith-based approach to youth development—with 15+ years of evidence-based research on the individual and ecological bases of PYD—can be scaled globally to enhance the likelihood that poor youth will become fulfilled and responsible leaders in their nations. The results will catalyze CI’s global efforts, expand the numbers of youth they are reaching in 26 nations, and be relevant to promoting thriving among the world’s youth.

To efficiently and effectively launch this study, we are planning to phase in each of the 3 countries over 3 years. Critically, the initial work includes measurement development in multicultural contexts, within-nation site selection, and pilot testing of data collection procedures and measures. The work we undertake during the first year, with the first country, El Salvador, will provide key learning that will enable greater efficiency in establishing the subsequent countries and will allow the evaluation research overall to be initiated with the best possible scientific tools, the greatest likelihood of empirical success, and the maximum probability of eventually positively impacting millions of youth. An overall 5-year plan, involving 4 overlapping age cohorts in each country, will provide comprehensive data for youth ages 9–22.

Project and Collaboration Uniqueness
There has never been a multinational, contextually sensitive, integrated, and holistic longitudinal study of children and youth living in poverty—especially one that extends existing health and education models, is based on a PYD theory of change, and focuses on the unique strengths, socio-emotional resources, and spirituality of youth required to nurture responsible and fulfilled adults that are able to lead and transform their communities.

The unique partnerships between Compassion and its local congregational partners provide the project with strong local connections that afford relationship building and contextualization. Compassion’s strong connections and “on-the-ground” presence in the communities where this work will take place will facilitate community access and trust.

In addition to CI, the collaboration includes Tufts University’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development (IARYD) and Fuller Theological Seminary’s Thrive Center for Human Development. These research partners bring together expertise in thriving/positive youth development and in spirituality and character development—not to mention longitudinal, mixed-methods, and cultural research. This one-of-kind partnership provides a solid foundation for this groundbreaking study with the potential to shed light on one of our world’s most pressing issues and enable change in the lives of the world’s poorest youth. This research will also build understanding of the nature and potential for thriving among the world’s poorest youth and the role that faith and spirituality play in their growth.

The Research Team
Richard M. Lerner, Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science and director of the Tufts University Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development (IARYD), is the world’s leading scholar in the study of positive youth development.

Jacqueline V. Lerner is a professor in the Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.

Pamela Ebstyne King is the Peter Benson Chair of Applied Developmental Science at the Thrive Center for Human Development in Fuller’s School of Psychology.

Kara Powell is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI).

Alistair Sim is the director of CI’s Program Effectiveness Research team, which applies and commissions both quantitative and qualitative studies to routinely measure program effectiveness to inform CI’s program design and donor messaging. Alistair Sim also holds an ongoing adjunct position as professor of medical biochemistry at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Guillermo Iraheta works for Compassion International in El Salvador as the GMC-GP-Effectiveness Research Specialist.

Wydick, B., Glewwe, P., & Rutledge, D. (2013). Does international child sponsorship work? A six-country study of impacts on adult life outcomes. Journal of Political Economy, 121(2), 393–436.