Studies of poverty, inequality, and development tend to be conducted in disciplinary silos. Rarely do such efforts reach across disciplinary boundaries and thus at times they fall short of grasping the complexity of these issues. Various scholars have made a case for interdisciplinary approaches particularly in the field of international development. However we still do a relatively poor job incorporating knowledge from other disciplines into the design of interventions (and accompanying impact evaluations). The consequence of this includes our limited understanding of why programs seem to “work”, as was highlighted in Markus’ recent blog post.
I have lately been part of a team exploring the impacts of financial crises on children and youth (forthcoming; to be added to the mailing list please click here). In our work we found a vast amount of heterogeneity in impacts and were at a loss of identifying salient explanatory factors until we began to look more broadly and started to explore the disciplinary realm of (human) developmental science.
How does incorporating knowledge from other disciplines deepen our understanding of the impact of financial crises on the (human) developmental process? Human development is marked by its interdisciplinary nature; a lot of insightful research has come from cross-disciplinary collaboration. These studies provide rich information of how children develop to their full (genetic) potential that goes far beyond nutritional requirements and school attendance in isolation. For instance, more recent findings in epigenetics show that, while identification poses a serious challenge in itself, genetic makeup has fairly little predictive power while gene-environment interactions lead to the observable indicators that we know as developmental outcomes that we know as developmental outcomes.
In other words, an interdisciplinary approach deepens our understanding of the processes driving child development, and how the various systems, from the biological to the social, interact. We thought that this approach was likely to enhance our capacity to identify the most vulnerable and hopefully avoid the worst long-term consequences from exposure to adversity. Therefore, our team drew from this broad body of literature to develop an inter-disciplinary conceptual framework with which to identify the multiple pathways through which, for example, a fall in household income (or an increase in uncertainty) due to a financial crisis translates into adverse child outcomes. Other disciplines, such as developmental psychology, focus on mediators such as parental stress or depression. For instance, studies using the “Family Stress Model” show that economic hardship can lead to parental stress and symptoms associated with it, such as depression and anxiety. Thus, it may not only be the income shortfall per se, but also the stress resulting from the everyday struggle to make ends meet, which, among other things, reduces the availability, consistency, and quality of parent-child interactions. This stress mechanism can affect, albeit in different ways, children of all agesas well as families from diverse cultural contexts. For example, the ‘Failure to Thrive’ literature shows that young children can fail to grow in stature even with sufficient nutrients and calories, if the primary caregivers lack the ability to provide positive stimulation and a secure attachment due to depression. Other studies have shown that children of depressed parents are five or more times more likely to develop psychopathological problems.
What complicates the issue is that this stress can be caused by perceived, rather than actual, inadequacy of financial resources. In other words, even if a certain level of income is maintained, people can perceive their situation as stressful or traumatic due to the increase in uncertainty or perceptions of risk. For example, while not an economic crisis per se, studies from around the United States showed that the events on September 11th 2001 had severe traumatic impacts on children, even when they or their families were not directly affected. This is referred to as “distal trauma”. Similarly, a severe financial crisis may cause a general state of panic in society, for example, fear of losing one’s house or job, which can increase family stress and impact children’s development.
So what are the implications for policy? First, this approach provides a range of alternative possibilities for intervention by providing further insight into why and how programs work and, thus, allowing us to identify a range of “nested points of entry” for policy instruments. For example, when attempting to break the transmission of shocks to the child, we may consider cash transfer programs to lessen the economic hardship families are experiencing. Lessening the hardship may reduce family stress. On the other hand, depending on the design of the intervention, especially the targeting strategy and conditionalities, such transfers may also increase family tensions. Furthermore, even if lost income can be replaced, the psychological effects of unemployment may remain, and family relations altered.
Therefore, in addition we may need to counter the psychosocial effects of hardship, unemployment, and/or uncertainty by providing people, families, and communities with information and resources to foster positive adaptation. This notion is put forward in the Successful Societies program, an interdisciplinary endeavor exploring how institutions and culture affect health and development. They highlight the importance of cultural frameworks and repertoires that support social cohesion and a positive image of self, in order to effectively deal with the daily wear and tear in the face of uncertainty and adversity. In this vein, Hall and Taylor (2009) explore the effect public policy can have on a process of either social resource creation or erosion and the considerable consequences this entails for the well-being of communities. Relatedly, the resilience literature provides an array of nested points of entry for policy found at the family and/or community levels.
Other research indicates environments that provide cultural frameworks promoting and providing positive norms, relationships, and shared rituals contribute to a supportive environment and lead to positive self-perceptions, a sense of meaning, and positive attachment relationships. All of these factors foster positive adaptation in the face of adversity. For example, a study of Mexican immigrant families in California during the Great Recession showed that strong ethnic and cultural identity and a sense of belonging increased resilience in individuals and communities (Conger & Stockdale, 2011). Given the importance of early infant attachment and the potentially negative impacts of postpartum depression, a review of interventions that target the mother-infant relationship indicate great potential at enhancing the quality of this relationship (randomized control trial). A study of a mother-infant intervention confirmed these findings in the South African context. Thus, helping people understand the big picture – how the crisis may be affecting them, how this may change family dynamics, and how they can maintain effective and positive parenting and healthy relationships with their children despite all this – will support the socio-emotional and cognitive outcomes of their children.
This interdisciplinary approach also stresses the importance of understanding the micro-, meso-, and macrosystem context, both for the analysis as well as the program design, as it expands our options for interventions from family to other settings such as schools in which the child interacts. It can be hard to alter certain aspects of family life. School based interventions, such as special classroom activities or after school programs specifically targeting socio-emotional development and wellbeing, could substitute for the lack thereof at home.
This post is far too short to be able to do justice to the complexity of the topic. Nevertheless, it should serve as a teaser of benefits from interdisciplinary collaboration. There is a wealth of knowledge out there currently still vastly un(der)utilized, from studies identifying mediators, as outlined above, as well as abundant information including rigorous evaluations of interventions intended to foster healthy child and youth development.
Alice Wuermli is an extended term consultant in the Social Protection team of the World Bank's Human Development Network.