Youth in Action, how to effectively design livelihood programs for highly vulnerable young people living in rural communities

When Save the Children (SC) and Mastercard Foundation (MCF) initially partnered in 2012 there was a gap in understanding how to effectively design livelihood programs for highly vulnerable young people living in rural communities. As a result, the two organizations developed Youth in Action (YiA), a six-year program to improve the socioeconomic status of 40,000 out-of-school male and female youth (12-18 years) in rural Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Malawi, and Uganda.

YiA aimed to strengthen foundational work readiness skills, then develop business and management capabilities, and create space to apply learned skills, all while supported by family and community. In the design stage, SC and MCF recognized that while there is a growing body of research on programming for youth livelihood development, the evidence on the effectiveness of these programs is mixed. There are also questions around equity: who benefits from these programs and who is left behind?

Given this context, YiA included a robust learning agenda in addition to its programmatic targets. SC embedded 32 studies into the six years of implementing YiA. The new report Pathways to Opportunity – Supporting Rural Youth to Leverage Decent Work: Evidence from the Cross-Sectoral Youth in Action Program synthesizes the findings from this research, reflects on key evidence-based lessons, and provides recommendations for future programming and research.


Four main lessons that emerge from this research are:

  • Work readiness is possible in four months – Youth can build a wide variety of work readiness skills over a condensed time-period. Accelerated programming can be especially effective if coupled with focused and explicit instruction as well as opportunities to engage in practical activities that support future livelihood development.
  • Livelihood development is enhanced by family and community support – Increases in family and community support over the program period were associated with stronger gains in work readiness skills like financial literacy and communication.
  • Quantitative data can mask gendered barriers – Disaggregating quantitative data by gender is the first step. It gives us a picture on whether there are differences between male and female youth. However, outcomes data may mask important gendered barriers that influence the livelihood development of male and female youth.
  • Rural youth choose and can sustain self-employment – We found a marked decrease in the percent of youth wage-employed and unemployed, and a statistically and practically significant increase in youth who were self-employed.


Overall, YiA programming and research has showed us that a focused, participatory, and activity-based accelerated curriculum can support out-of-school youth from rural contexts build key work readiness skills. Guidance and support—like cash transfers, business mentorship, connections to local services, and business development training—can help youth use the work readiness skills and build sustainable livelihoods. A holistic model, when targeted to marginalized rural youth who have limited access to resources and services, can boost their income earning potential as well as their ability to save for their future.