Impact Evaluation Findings of Youth Competencies Program
In many parts of Russia, youth struggle with a lack of social and employment opportunities, which can contribute to apathy and even marginal behavior. But a recent independent evaluation finds that one of IREX's program models helps youth build leadership skills and engage productively with their communities.
RS: Tell me about the YDCP program. What makes it unique and important for Russian youth?
SA: YDCP provides opportunities and inspiration for youth to get involved in their communities, in their schools, to develop ideas of their own and get support to implement them. One unique aspect is our central focus on youth leadership throughout all aspects of the program. As these youth move on to adulthood, they will be more successful and more engaged in their communities.
It is important because there is a lack of empowering, structured, youth-led opportunities for young people in Russia. There are a great deal of small towns where there is "nowhere to go and nothing to do" for young people - or the opportunities are very limited. If you think about a typical high school in America, even in a small town there are opportunities for extracurricular engagement - school sports, clubs, music, community service, etc. - that do not exist to the same extent in Russia. There is not the idea of the "well-rounded" student who needs to have activities in order to get into college. Some Russian youth have told me their peers ask them why they volunteer - they must be crazy to do something without getting paid!
Our program gives participants the confidence and ability to operate at the same level as adults and to be taken seriously. Our participants have noted the skills they gain have helped them professionally as well.
RS: Can you give me a "snapshot" of community activism that YDCP participants engage in?
SA: Some YDCP participants are involved in listening to their peers and serving as liaisons to the local government on youth issues. In one school in the north of Russia, students complained that the classrooms weren't heated and it was impossible to concentrate. The YDCP participant brought the issue to the local authorities and it was promptly resolved. They fixed the heating. In a society where you are dealing with all the historical patterns and entrenched attitudes of waiting for government intervention that does not happen – “that it's not worth reporting a problem because nothing will ever be done” - I think this is a really powerful moment.
Another YDCP participant I met in Moscow told me about the project she did at her school, which is in a rural community. People would say that there was nothing for youth in this town. YDCP leaders trained some of her classmates and teachers in project design and management. They came up with the idea to clean some of the wooded area near the school to create a place where youth could sit and enjoy being outdoors. She was really proud of the work they did - the kids built it themselves - and it shows that in a society where people are not always motivated to get up and do something (because history shows that it will fail) community engagement is both possible and powerful.
RS: The program contracted a third-party evaluator to assess the impact of the YDCP program. Why is it important to have an impact assessment?
SA: We felt it was important to hold ourselves accountable and measure the impact of our work. YDCP is addressing fundamental changes in attitude and behavior, which is very difficult to measure, and we felt that an in-depth impact evaluation that compares a control group to the participants would tell us both what is working, and where we could improve. The independent evaluation we did was valuable for us in this case because it confirmed our hopes and expectations for our work with youth in Russia. We can truly say we are helping the rising generation to become part of a robust civil society within the country, and taking measures to ensure donors' money is well-spent.
RS: You mention the importance of learning from the report findings. The report noted a potential for self-selection bias in the findings, particularly when it came to inferring causation between the program and increased levels of civic participation. How do you interpret the program's true impact in light of these ambiguities?
SA: Attribution is very challenging in these types of programs, and it’s important to look at results in light of the fact that there are always a range of factors that can affect attitudinal and behavioral change. It’s true, some youth were already involved in community service, but the YDCP approach goes further. It puts them in more prominent roles and develops critical thinking by asking them to identify projects they want to implement.
RS: The report also noted a bit of a gender gap in the results, with females participating more in formal activities than males. What do you make of this and what steps might you recommend to address the imbalance?
SA: Education and youth development are female-dominated fields in Russia. One reason I have heard for this is that NGO and teacher salaries are very low and only women will accept these jobs – I’ve heard people say things like “a man cannot earn enough to feed his family.” Often when we think of gender as an issue in programming, people assume we're talking about how to get more women or girls involved. In Russia, for YDCP, that is really not the case. I have met dedicated youth leaders who are both male and female in Russia and we definitely encourage both male and female youth to participate. Offering a wide range of activities, and identifying male leaders and activities that will attract male youth - and allowing youth participants to choose the role they want to play in a particular project can help. This may allow them to gravitate more toward their own areas of interest.
RS: What is in store for the YDCP program and its participants in the future?
SA: We are developing and delivering a course on Positive Youth Development for adults that work with Russian youth. It is meant to strengthen practitioners' skills to work effectively with youth and support youth leadership. The course has received good feedback so far and we're very excited about it.
We are also supporting a series of roundtable discussions with local officials on youth issues, with the aim of strengthening youth policy. We plan to continue preparing youth in Russia to have real involvement within their communities.
Susie has seven years of experience working with students, educators and youth-serving organizations in the former Soviet Union and worked at a community youth center in Russia as a US-Russia Volunteer Intiative volunteer. She has also been based at IREX's Moscow office and taught English as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.