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Studies could improve well-being of low-income youth, Africans with HIV/AIDS

By Susan White

Gina Chowa, an assistant professor at UNC’s School of Social Work, recently returned from a three-week trip to Africa, where she is beginning two separate studies that could help improve the overall well-being of low-income youth and adults with HIV/AIDS.

Chowa spent the first leg of her trip in Ghana, where she is working as the co-principal investigator of the YouthSave study, a landmark global research project that study partners say could be a key tool in helping lift low-income youth in developing countries out of poverty. The five-year project, which is funded by a $12.5 million grant from The MasterCard Foundation, will focus on how and why youth in the countries of Ghana, Colombia, Kenya, and Nepal save money and potential ways to increase their access to financial services.

“The amount of money that low income youth save now is very, very limited,” Chowa said. “So if we were able to bring in a system that is safe, a system that will bring higher returns, a system that will bring convenience to the people and then the savings grow to a point of something substantial, then obviously that will help in getting people out of poverty.”

Chowa will focus on how accumulating savings impact a youth’s educational, economic, psychosocial, physical and mental well-being.

Four organizations are collaborating on the project: Save the Children, New America Foundation, Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGap), and the Center for Social Development at Washington University at St. Louis. Chowa, who earned her MSW and Ph.D. from George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, has worked closely over the years with YouthSave’s principal investigator, Michael Sherraden, the founder and director for the Center for Social Development.

Chowa’s part of the study will kick off in January behind a marketing campaign designed to motivate Ghana’s youth to open and contribute to a financial savings account. The campaign will likely include savings incentives, such as cell phone banking services and access to services in schools, Chowa said. “All of those features will be tested, and we’ll find one that works best.”

Participating banks have been enthusiastic about the project because they “understand that if they invest in this population now, then in five or six years, this population will start using other financial products,” Chowa explained. “They’ll start getting mortgages, and they’ll start getting credit and investing in other things.”
Chowa said she is particularly interested in learning if youth who start saving early increase their chances of going to college.

“We believe that youth are a population that if we get them now and we start inculcating that culture of saving, we will help them understand that savings can bring investment and that investment can  improve their overall economic and educational livelihood over the long term,” she said.

During her three-week stint in Africa, Chowa also visited Zambia, where she is launching a pilot study to assess how revenue from micro-enterprise businesses impacts the economic, physical and mental outlook of men and women with HIV/AIDS.

“What we’re looking at is an intervention project that will bring in money to these households,” Chowa explained. “Then we’re hoping that these individuals will save some of the money, invest more in other assets, and put money aside for their kids’ education and future.”

Although people who are terminally ill often feel hopeless, especially about their future, Chowa suggested that these attitudes may change when additional financial support is available.

“For people who are HIV positive, when there’s an asset that they can leave for their children, their hope increases,” she said. “There’s a thinking that, ‘At least this is something I can live for. My children will live better.’ Their outlook on life changes. That’s what we’re trying to get evidence of.”

Chowa received a $20,000 grant from the UNC Center for AIDS Research to fund the one-year pilot study. Additional funding comes from the School of Social Work and from the Center for Aids Research at the University of Alabama.