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Global researcher Dr. Thoai Ngo on “Growing Up in Uncertain Times”

by Barbara Wiedemann

How will the world’s largest-ever generation of adolescents and young people thrive in an increasingly complex global landscape? On Monday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. in UNC School of Social Work’s Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building auditorium, Population Council Vice President of Social and Behavioral Science Research Thoai D. Ngo, Ph.D., MHS, will address this question as the Global Social Development Innovations center’s third Michael Sherraden Lecturer.

  • Reception: 5:30–6:30 p.m.
  • Lecture: 6:30–7:15 p.m.
  • Moderated discussion: 7:15–8 p.m.
  • Free Parking at Nash Lot

In anticipation of his visit to UNC-Chapel Hill, we talked with Ngo about his upcoming lecture entitled “Growing Up in Uncertain Times: Evidence and Action for the World’s 1.8 Billion Youth.” The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Register for the free lecture here. The lecture will be broadcast live at this link.

What global issues will your upcoming Nov. 13 lecture at UNC School of Social Work address?

I’m honored to be the third Michael Sherraden Lecturer at the Global Social Development Innovations (GSDI) center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work. During my visit, I will talk about today’s 1.8 billion young people, who are growing up in a deeply uncertain future.

At the Population Council, I direct global research efforts to advance four intersecting goals: 1) sexual and reproductive health, rights and choices for all, 2) adolescent transitions, 3) gender equality and equity, and 4) climate justice. The world’s youth can thrive at the intersection of all of these spaces.

The world’s largest-ever generation of adolescents and young people is facing an increasingly complex global landscape against the backdrop of rising social and economic inequality. These young people are grappling with building back from COVID-19, the intensifying climate crisis, rising conflicts, and swiftly changing tech and digital spaces, among other issues.

I’ll argue that now is the time to step up and support adolescents and young people. They need skills, knowledge and access to thrive under these challenges. For example, as the economy shifts towards green jobs, we need to find ways to not just educate our in-school and out-of-school youth, but also to break barriers in STEM to ensure an equitable, just transition to a green economy by building new green skills for young women and girls.

How will the global research on today’s 1.8 billion young people encourage your audience to consider that social, economic and health issues — and innovative solutions to those issues — all transcend national boundaries?

At the Council, we develop and test innovative solutions and then adapt promising ones across more than 30 countries with a focus on systematically excluded population groups. For example, our team of sexual and reproductive health experts developed and tested an innovative cognitive behavioral therapy program to support people (specifically sexual and gender minorities) who have been recently diagnosed with HIV in Nigeria.

Given the program’s success, our team’s thoughts turned to other partnerships with clinics serving these populations. Now the team is partnering with sexual and gender minority-serving clinics in Washington, D.C. to adapt the group therapy model in that city. We’ve done a similar process drawing lessons from youth violence prevention programs around the globe and applying them to a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh in that city and in the nation’s capital. We are now developing a program to facilitate a cultural adaptation of the program from Black youth to Latin youth. 

That is just one example of how we work.

We have implemented and tested a girl-centered programming model in different settings that focused on supporting girls in developing the skills, knowledge and abilities they need to become healthy, empowered women. We focus on delivering a sex education, financial basics, human rights and life skills curriculum, and sometimes layer on other programming such as a cash transfer program or community conversations involving family members, to facilitate a more supportive environment for girls to develop agency and empowerment and avert outcomes like child marriage and unwanted pregnancy.

Why is this the right time to hear from you at Carolina?

I bring global expertise and lead efforts to promote deeper understanding of the linkages that are critical to the world’s sustainable development, including population dynamics, people’s health and well-being, gender equality and climate change.

The global community faces unprecedented urgency in supporting the rising generation in facing the multiple intersecting crises I describe above. Backlash from the COVID-19 pandemic means that trust in data and evidence is fractured. With the many crises faced, governments (at all levels), donors, implementers, the private sector and other stakeholders face uncertainty as to what should be prioritized to transform systems.

Thanks to the Population Council’s multisectoral and transdisciplinary expertise, my team has been pushing out actionable research and insights that support decision-makers who seek to smartly direct their resources.

What recent research breakthroughs can you share with our audiences on Monday, Nov. 13?

I will discuss the major challenges and potential faced by this rising generation as well as multisectoral policies, programs and solutions that have worked.

Specifically, I will share the latest evidence on gender discrimination and education, how the pandemic has impacted different subgroups of youth, and what young people are doing around the climate crisis.

For example: We are growing a portfolio of early childhood development research, as this is a critical period to intervene to set adolescents and young people up for success from the start. My colleagues and I recently published a study using data from the India National Family Health Survey and found that there is still a gender gap in private preschool enrollment: sisters are less likely than their brothers to attend private preschool. We see this as a signal that girls are still not being invested in to the same degree as boys within families.

We recently published some results from our COVID-19-era studies: we were lucky enough to have some ongoing study cohorts that we could mobilize during COVID-19 by conducting internet and mobile phone-based surveys. We analyzed data across India, Kenya and Mexico and found that there were specific subgroups of youth that fared worse during the pandemic across all three countries.

We conducted co-led, participatory research with young people across different countries (Bangladesh, Guatemala and Nigeria) to understand how climate change is shaping their lives, health and education. We also looked at the ways that young people are taking action to combat climate change.

I look forward to sharing more depth about our research findings and discussing their potential implications for policy and investments aimed at benefiting the rising generation during my lecture in Chapel Hill.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Ngo. We look forward to welcoming you to the Global Social Development Innovations center at UNC School of Social Work on Monday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. ET.

The Population Council, established in 1952 by John D. Rockefeller III with 14 international offices and affiliated organizations in the United States, Africa, Asia and Latin America, is a nonprofit research organization seeking to transform global thinking on critical health and development issues through social science, public health and biomedical research. Ngo joined the Council in 2016. Currently, Ngo leads the Population Council’s global team of interdisciplinary scientists and researchers. In 2017, he was named one of the 120 Under 40 leaders making a difference in reproductive health worldwide. Ngo has worked with the Council and other international non-profits on the intersection between research and policy in many countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, India, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Uganda, United Kingdom, Viet Nam, Zambia and the U.S.