Results of GFP’s PhD Project in Sri Lanka

By Alex Hamilton, Generations For Peace Oxford PhD Scholar

In this blog, I am going to summarise the results of my PhD project in Sri Lanka, which was kindly funded and supported by Generations For Peace (GFP). It has taken me three and a half years to complete, and I am finally there! It is difficult to detail the level of support that I required at times throughout this process, and I am truly grateful for all who have blessed me with their assistance, patience and friendship.

For the project, I evaluated a GFP Sport For Peace Programme for Youth, exploring the impact it had on the mental and physical health of young people in Mullaitivu, northern Sri Lanka. There are many practical challenges to working in Mullaitivu, but with the help of the Community Development Organisation (CDO), we collected rigorous, valid scientific data. So much so that the results are now published in two international journals!

Children in Sri Lanka

Now to the good stuff. To assess mental health I used the Sri Lankan Index of Psychosocial Stress – Child version (SLIPS – C). The SLIPS-C is a great tool. Locally developed, adapted and designed, it captures the Sri Lankan experience of mental health. I also measured rates of malnutrition and physical fitness using standard global measures; this meant I could compare Sri Lankan youth to international populations. Before you read on I want you to consider two things:

(1) What percentage of young people in north Sri Lanka are of normal weight?

(2) Are boys from northern Sri Lanka fitter than those from Europe?

My data collection was separated into three stages: (1) methods testing, (2) baseline and (3) follow-up. We all know that a baseline is crucial in evaluation. Without a baseline, we cannot identify change. However, the selection, adaptation and pre-testing of methods is also a crucial and informative stage of evaluation design, too often ignored! Measuring mental health can be tricky, much like measuring peace. But by ensuring our methods are fit for our purpose, we strengthen our conclusions and boost confidence in our results.

For the baseline study, we collected data in 8 schools across Mullaitivu. GFP and the CDO delivered an intervention in 4 schools, and 4 were control schools. If possible, it is great to have control schools; this is so that you can be sure any change in mental or physical health is as a result of your intervention, and not a random change! And, we measured mental and physical health of 383 participants, out of a possible 480. It is always good to know how many participants you missed! Importantly, the baseline study showed that there were no differences in mental or physical health in the 8 schools before the intervention.

Remember my first question? Figure 1 shows the percentage of boys and girls who are malnourished in Mullaitivu, compared to the global average values (on the far right). This graph shows that, although the war ended in 2009 and on-going development in Mullaitivu, 80% of boys and nearly 50% of girls are malnourished. This shows that school food aid programmes in northern Sri Lanka might not be reaching those who need it most.

Figure 1: Bar chart of the proportion of young people who are malnourished in Mullaitivu

Figure 1: Bar chart

Now for question 2. Figure 2 indicates that the boys and girls in Mullaitivu are significantly less fit than their global peers. It is often assumed that young people in rural regions are fit and healthy, the results of the baseline study are important because they reflect a broader point about the importance of data collection and evaluation. It is always important to test our assumptions – we are not always right! This is true for peace-building programmes too, because something is common knowledge it does not mean it is correct. Think about your GFP Training, stereotyping is another form of assumed knowledge.

Figure 2: Fitness scores of boys in Mullaitivu compared to global averages

Age group Mullaitivu boys fitness score Global average fitness score
13 year olds 9.96 10.95
14 year olds 10.07 11.16

After the intervention, we conducted follow-up assessments of mental and physical health. Perhaps surprisingly, mental health had improved in both the intervention and the control groups. It is worth noting that due to political instability, very little of the intended intervention was delivered between the baseline and follow-up measurement. The delays in implementation caused by unpredictable political shifts are uncontrollable forces that are unavoidable in evaluations.

Figure 3: Change in mental health in adolescents in Mullaitivu from baseline to follow-up

Figure 3

There are no clear explanations for the mental health improvement, but the results suggest that the intervention had no additional positive impact. Importantly, this indicates that the programmes are not negatively impacting on participant health, which has been recorded in other Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) programmes. SDP literature suggests that achieving positive change requires long-term relationship development with trained peer leaders, and thus, this was unlikely to happen over the course of one programme. This does not mean that the intervention will not have an effect or cannot have an effect over time. What it indicates is the difficulties we face in trying to evaluate in the field, you cannot control everything and, often, the first thing to go wrong is the plan. The CDO and GFP now have a strong base in Mullaitivu, on which they can develop a long-lasting and effective SDP programme. The fact that GFP and CDO have managed to gather representatives from all the different religious groups in the area is a major achievement, this has not happened since the end of the civil conflict. We all know that relationships are key to peacebuilding, and Delegates have built up their web to ensure that programmes can deliver long-term change for young people in Mullaitivu.

There are many learning points to take forward.  Make sure you’re ready to deliver an intervention, and don’t rush into things. Plan and pilot things, no one gets it right the first time; it’s worth investing time at this point to ensure the best possible outcomes for you and your beneficiaries!

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