According to a study published earlier this month in JAMA Pediatrics, children who grow up in poverty can be more likely to experience stunted brain development.

Low test scores and poor social interaction at school have been linked to poverty at home in the past, but these findings help provide scientific evidence for the correlation.

The study states that children living below the poverty line demonstrated “systematic structural differences” in their brains when compared to non-poor children.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Duke University. Tracking around 400 children and young adults between 2001 and 2007, the researchers took a brain scan of the participants every two years. These scans measured the consistency of gray matter in areas of the brain linked to good academic performance.

“It’s only in the last few years that there’s been any systematic research asking about the biological side of the story,” said John Gabrieli, an MIT neuroscientist who’s published similar studies linking poverty with brain development. “We have so much very strong evidence that there’s lots of room for brain plasticity all the way through adulthood.”

The “environmental circumstances of poverty,” as the study puts it, are most likely one the largest factors in limiting children’s brain development. These factors consist of practices and items that help stimulate brain growth, such as books, coloring items, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and someone to read to you.

While not the first study to link poverty with brain development, the JAMA Pediactrics study is the first to fully connect its results. Hopefully this study will open more doors for further research to be conducted on this subject and more progress can be made.

Alexander Jones

Sources: Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Star Tribune
Photo: Huffington Post


We are always told that children are the future; that to have a successful future we must invest in them, giving them the opportunities and the education they need and deserve. The youth makes up 43% of the world’s population. This means there is a large potential force out there that can change the world. Of these youth, 90% live in the developing world. That means there is a huge importance to reach these youths. If given the proper tools, they could change poverty in their countries.

Ensuring that children in developing nations have access to education is crucial. By attending school, boys and girls learn skills that enable them to find professions besides agriculture and mothering, respectively. It gives them a sense of empowerment and self-esteem.

Government leaders and organizations have seen success in addressing policies and programs for the young populations of their countries. The key is to “create and support the enabling conditions under which young people can act on their own behalf, and on their own terms.”

The United Nations has implemented Youth Empowerment and Employment Programs across the developing world. The programs work to provide business development and career advice to youth. There are three goals that the programs hope to address. First, institutional and policy development to ensure that government policies passed help youth gain employment. Second, the programs empower youth by creating and working with existing youth councils and youth leadership positions. Lastly, the programs provide employment and job experience by providing internships and directing student graduates to jobs.

In Sierra Leone, the results of these programs have been positive and have expanded businesses. In one community, there have been 204 jobs created, 400 students (half being women) supported to create their own businesses, and 150 interns placed in 20 institutions. Both men and women had access to the resources and saw success as the numbers show that about half of the empowered youth were women.

In the end, giving the youth education and training provided them opportunities to flourish. They were able to use their skills and make better lives for themselves. They were able to find jobs, which means that they were not left in dire poverty. Empowering the youth not only helps them to feel successful, but it also helps the local community by growing the economy.

Katherine Hewitt

Sources: OECD, UN, UNCSD 2012, UNDP
Photo: AANF

HIV_PreventionWhen Ben Franklin said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, he probably wasn’t referring to HIV/AIDs prevention and international development, yet the idea is applicable nevertheless.

Oftentimes, medical interventions in the developing world consist of sending and administering medical supplies, personnel and medical training. However, when it comes to HIV prevention, secondary school education might be a “two birds, one stone” scenario, cost-effectively cutting down the rate of new infections in the first place rather than focusing on expensive treatment.

Traditional HIV/AIDS reduction programs such as the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) have focused on primary school education and generally expanding access to information regarding HIV/AIDS as a prevention strategy. However, programs like PEPFAR generally don’t go so far as to include secondary school education as a strategy, which can be a rather ambitious objective.

A recent study published by The Lancet suggests that secondary school education ought to be the main feature of programs such as PEPFAR.

The study correlates a drop in new cases of AIDS with extra schooling in Botswana. Jacob Bor of Boston University School of Public Health, one of the co-authors of the study, made this point succinctly saying, “investments in secondary schooling are a slam dunk and should go alongside biomedical interventions in any effective HIV prevention strategy.”

According to the study, young people who attended an extra year of secondary school were 8.1% less likely to contract HIV. Girls, in particular, were 11.6% less likely if they attended at least two years of secondary school. The study found that there was no such correlation with primary school attendance. Apparently, the greater impact on preventing new cases of HIV in girls might be due to the fact that there are simply more women with the virus to begin with; in 2013, almost 80% of new adolescent infections in Sub-Saharan Africa occurred among girls.

Because AIDS has a disproportionate impact on women, secondary school education might even represent a grand slam of development objectives, improving health, education and gender equality; expanding opportunities for women and girls is widely regarded as one of the most effective poverty-reduction strategies.

The Millennium Development Goals included the objective of achieving a universal primary education for all children, which even now is a lofty goal. However, to realize a substantial improvement in AIDS reduction as well as other related goals, universal secondary school education might need to be included in the next set of global development objectives.

Derek Marion

Sources: SciDevNet, The Lancet, PEPFAR
Photo: Flickr

Since the civil war in Syria broke out just three years ago, four million people have sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. So far, 100,000 have been killed. 7,000 of them are children.

The Middle East’s biggest refugee camp, Zaatari, lies in Jordan. It shelters 120,000 Syrians in a community divided into 12 districts. It costs $500,000 to run the camp. Camp workers dole out 500,000 pieces of bread and 3.5 million liters of water a day. Three-fourths of residents are women and children.

Of the 650,000 people that fled Syria to arrive in Turkey, one-third are allowed into refugee camps. There is no room for the res; they have to fend for themselves. Nizar Najjar is the assistant director of Camp Bab al-Salameh. He explains, “Sometimes we do not have the capacity to receive new refugees. Some people (are forced to) just put up their tents in fields.”

Those in camps do not have it much better. Dr. Al-Naser is a part of a group called “Medical Relief for Syria”. He says that the spread of disease is a big concern. “It’s a problem with sanitation, how to dispose of bathing water and used toilet water. There are lakes of waste in some areas.” Trucks bring in the camp’s only source of freshwater.

Young Syrian refugees are often traumatized. They have faced the horrors of being under siege, losing their homes and being separated from their families. Groups that flee travel by night and hide during the day. Some are shot at by fighter jets. Even once they reach the border, shelling still echoes in the distance.

Sara* is a 12-year old girl who fled Syria with her mother and brother along with her aunt, uncle and grandmother one year ago. She does not know the whereabouts of her father, who was kidnapped in 2013. The family was forced to leave once they lost touch with a brother-in-law that was providing them with money and resources.

Sara’s family arrived at a camp in Lebanon run by activists. They managed to find a simple apartment. It gives them a safe place to stay, but it is not insulated and floods as soon as it rains. Rent and electricity cost $230 each month. Back in Syria, they were a middle-class family, and now charities help them with essentials like food, rent and medical expenses. Sara’s grandmother has diabetes and high blood pressure.

It also costs money to renew visas, which is now mandated every six months. Many times, families are forced to return to Syria because they cannot afford it. It is difficult for refugees to find jobs and earn money. Sara’s 14 year-old brother makes $30 each week working for a nearby mechanic.

Affording school is nearly out of the question with high costs of transportation, books and other fees. Sara loved school back in peace-time Syria and completed grade five. She has not been in school for over three years now but is able to take French and English language classes that are offered by aid agencies in the area.

Antonio Guterres is the UN commissioner for refugees. He asks countries around the world do more to help these displaced people, including raising money to support them and their host countries. The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, makes a similar request. He also hopes to rebuild Syria and add more access to basic public services.

Sara dreams of becoming a doctor and for her country’s healing. “I want this war to end. I expect the world is so much bigger, with so many more people. With time, the world changes. I hope the war will be over one day.”

*Names has been changed to protect her identity

Lillian Sickler

Sources: Care, Daily Mail, The Guardian, CBS News, World Vison, The Daily Beast, MIC, NPR
Photo: Flickr

In 2009, during three weeks of bombing from Israel, the Gaza Music School was destroyed just weeks after its inaugural performance. After the 2014 attacks between Hamas and Israel, the school has become even more important to the young musicians.

The Gaza Music School was launched in 2008 and helps give young people in Gaza the chance to explore their creativity and show off their talents. Most of the students have never lived in a Palestine that wasn’t at war.

Outlets are necessary to help kids forget about the horrors they see during war.

There is a staff of 15 that take care of 195 musicians ranging from age seven to 16 and the school is competitive to get into. In order to help deprived by poverty, there is a scholarship program to ensure everyone has a fair chance. While there is no experience necessary, every student must pass a test of ear and rhythm.

In Gaza and the West Bank, 25.8 percent of the population live below the poverty line. The GNI per capita is $3,060 and economic growth fluctuates due constant instability of peace.

When you walk into the school you hear drums, cellos, pianos, flutes and a qanoun. These sounds help calm the students and their families by relieving stress and expressing themselves. Abu Amsha, the school’s academic coordinator, wishes to expand music education in Gaza to include more students.

“Music restores hope and joy for a nation not accustomed to happiness,” says Ibrahim Al Najaar, the Gaza Music School coordinator.

Learning music helps students with all types of learning. Music requires the use of multiple skill sets. Students use their ears, eyes, and muscles while playing with sheet music or singing while playing an instrument. Therefore, neurological activity increases and you’re using more of your brain.

For music education in Gaza, students receive one-on-one attention from a teacher and practice at that school twice a week and 40 minutes a session. Since power goes out often in Gaza, teachers will even conduct their sessions in the dark. The school refers to music as “candle in the darkness.”

This type of education in Gaza is important to the community and the students. They have the opportunity to receive certificates for their time spent learning music and it gives them the opportunity to study at universities internationally. It is joyful, promotes expression, creativity, and hard work.

“Music is very important, especially in times of war, or when you’re under siege as we live now,” states Al Najaar.

Donald Gering

Sources: ANERA 1, ANERA 2, EI, The Independent, PBS, RT, World Bank
Photo: RT

The Population Council has a history of important and influential research in Egypt. In 1997, the council implemented the Adolescence and Social Change in Egypt survey. In 2009, the Survey of Young People in Egypt reached 15,000 young people from 11,000 households. Most recently, in 2014, 10,000 of the young people from the 2009 survey were interviewed for a second time.

Data from these surveys is critical to evaluate the challenges that Egyptian youth are facing in the transition of life before and after the revolution in Egypt. Additionally, Egypt’s population currently has a high percentage of youth that will determine the future of the country.

Data was gender-disaggregated in order to more clearly understand what kinds of programs can best empower women and girls. Data collected included information on health, education and employment.

The progress and improvements needed in the education sector deserve particular attention and demonstrate the complexity of changes in Egypt.

One of the most exciting advancements in the region is the nearly universal primary school enrollment. In 2014, more than 95% of youth aged 13 to 18 had attended school.

However, further analysis reveals that many youths still do not complete their basic education even if they had attended school for at least some period of time. In addition, there is clear gender inequality related to education. Twenty-one percent of women aged 25 to 34 were illiterate in sharp contrast to eight percent of men in this same age range.

Education quality is a critical factor in addition to education enrollment and regular attendance. Education through route memorization is not likely to provide students with the skills they will need to succeed in life. However, “40 percent of students report teachers ‘always’ only want students to memorize” while only “9 percent report that teachers encourage students to express their opinion.”

Furthermore, quality of basic education is lacking. Among youth who had attended five years of school, 50% cannot read, 50% cannot write and 40% cannot perform basic math.

While Egypt may be headed in the right direction with increased school enrollment, there is an unmet need for high quality education. The youth of Egypt represent the future of the country, and it is possible for the country to prosper if this unmet need is recognized and addressed.

Iliana Lang

Sources: Population Council 1, Population Council 2
Photo: Japan Times