When 'new and different' isn't the best remedy

June 30, 1996|By Sara Engram

RICK LITTLE of the International Youth Foundation, which has just moved its headquarters to Baltimore, likes to throw out some sobering statistics to help explain the foundation's mission.

He begins with the stark demographic facts:

By the end of the 1990s, some 1.5 billion children will have been born during this decade; 97 percent of those births are occurring in poor countries.

By the year 2000, for the first time in modern history young people under the age of 20 will make up half the world's population.

Those numbers are especially alarming for governments that are already having trouble feeding, educating and employing their citizens.

Imagine the challenge facing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, where nearly 70 percent of the population is under 25. Or in Mexico, where the burgeoning number of young people means that the economy will have to create a million new jobs each year, just to stay even with the employment pool.

Imagine, too, the political implications, both for those countries and for their neighbors. Since the most optimistic projections for annual job creation in Mexico fall a few hundred thousand jobs short of the million-jobs-a-year figure, the United States would be foolish to think there will be any easy solutions to illegal immigration.

Immigration won't be the only problem driven by demographic pressures. As Mr. Little notes, ''Poverty is the breeding ground of violence.'' That's especially true when the impoverished are young, energetic and desperate.

Mr. Little has a couple of other statistics that help explain the ambitious mission of the International Youth Foundation.

First, against this background of a bulging population of young people, if you add up all the money given by all donors to help improve the lives of children and youth, the vast majority of these donations are designated for infants and young children. Only about 10 percent is intended to benefit young people between the ages of 5 and 20.

Second, most of that 10 percent is designated for pilot programs or demonstration projects, a focus that often overlooks effective programs with proven track records in favor of something billed as new and different.

Till the funds expire

In this country, that mind-set means that most projects funded to help children and youth don't survive past the end of the demonstration period. As well as anybody can tell, some 90 percent of these programs vanish within five years of the grant.

That ''new and different'' mentality contributes to another problem that plagues social programs, a lack of attention to thorough evaluation that can show which approaches get the best results over the long haul.

For donors, it's always tempting to blaze new trails. But indulging a pioneering spirit sometimes means reinventing the wheel. And combined with the tendency to shy away from funding proven programs, it often means sacrificing the chance for really making a difference.

Education is a good example. We know that schooling is crucial to success later in life. But supporting the infrastructure of an education system may not be attractive to grant-makers, since it takes many years to educate a student.

The International Youth Foundation has many ambitious goals. But its efforts to help change those attitudes may turn out to be one of its biggest challenges and, if it is successful, one of its biggest contributions.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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