5.1 Winning the Lottery: Fairness in Youth Employment Programs

In most countries there is a large demand for labor market and education opportunities. Yet, for many youth, the access to these opportunities appears highly unfair, characterized by a lack of information, social barriers, unrealistic expectations from employers (e.g. in terms of experience needed), and non-transparent selection procedures favoring those with better connections instead of those with better skills. Youth-focused interventions can help bridge some of these gaps, making them an important, if not sometimes the only, opportunity for disadvantaged young people to have a better life. However, access to these programs is usually limited (due to funding and service delivery constraints), raising the question how programs should be designed to be as fair as possible in providing any given services.

A.) Be aware how your program is perceived by participants and non-participants

Fairness concerns can arise from of a variety of situations. For example, a new program is offered in village A, but not in neighboring village B; or livelihood activities are being offered exclusively for girls, and the boys wonder why they are not allowed to join. Even though there may be a good reason for why services are offered to some and not to others, this rationale is not necessarily understood or accepted by the people affected, who may interpret the situation against the background of their own attitudes and experiences.

When fairness concerns arise, they have the potential to reduce benefits for participants and even lead to unintended negative outcomes. Examples include increased conflict between participants and non-participants, decreased trust in local institutions, and skewed incentives (e.g., if a program is only offered to school dropouts, other youth may be encouraged to leave school as well). Generally speaking, it is crucial to anticipate and understand the perception of the program from those left out and the interpersonal and community dynamics that may result from it.

Red Flags of Unfairness

Red flag


Why this may be unfair

Lack of clear targeting and selection criteria (e.g., cherry picking participants).

Outreach to and selection from existing pools of NGO youth participants

Non-participants do not understand why they cannot benefit. This can lead to resentment.

Highly targeted and specialized projects.

Information Technology (IT) center selects participants from a pool of firm sponsored candidates, many of whom are children of employees.

Non-participants may question the logic behind the targeting.

Targeted to youth within traditional NGO networks, whereby youth are from households already receiving benefits. Little opportunity for youth outside network.

Welfare programs select youth from the same families that have traditionally received benefits, usually offering large benefits to a few youth.

Non-participants see few open and transparent opportunities through social network.

Localities of conflict with large unserved youth populations

Targeting of former child soldiers without providing benefits to other community members.

Non-participants receive no benefit, whereby program is rewarding those who behave(d) badly with no rewards for good behavior.

B.) Enhance Fairness Through Program Design

Given the potentially damaging consequences from unfair program characteristics, practitioners should pay attention to the following design features in order to ensure a fair process:

  • Targeting: Targeting criteria should be established based on a clear rationale to address the specific needs and constraints of a particular group. Criteria that unnecessarily limit eligibility should be avoided.
  • Outreach: Giving open and full information to all eligible participants is key. Remember that different outreach channels favor/exclude different groups, so try to use a variety of channels accordingly.
  • Selection/recruitment: The selection process should be as transparent and objective as possible. When demand for the program exceeds enrollment capacity, a random assignment (“lottery”) may be the fairest way to determine participation. Other selection methods risk being more arbitrary (e.g., first-come-first-served tends to benefit those with better access to information).
  • Benefits: Providing multiple benefits or services can help reach larger numbers of beneficiaries. Benefits and services offered can be staggered to build in natural incentives for different levels of engagement with the program. For example, youth projects providing training to a limited number of youth might be able to offer an initial short information workshop that is open to a larger number of beneficiaries. Also, projects with treatment and comparison groups can offer a small reward (unrelated to the core intervention) to those in the comparison group.

The “fair process effect” has been proven to be an important factor in evaluation outcomes. Procedural fairness, through recruitment and selection, location of services, and other management decisions, influence expectations and outcomes. Participants and non-participants can see the link between their situation, their engagement, and their chances to access certain opportunities more clearly, enhanced by stronger trust in the local institutions. In fact, equitable and inclusive processes in a project are often correlated with positive project outcomes.[1]

In terms of a fair selection process, a lottery recruitment mechanism also provides a major advantage in terms of monitoring and evaluation. It creates a natural comparison group allowing for a more robust impact assessment, since participants and non-participants will naturally share the same characteristics on average.

Examples of Youth-Focused Programs Changing their Design Features to Enhance Fairness

Summer Youth Employment Program, New York City and Los Angeles:
The Summer Youth Employment program provides a seven-week program of work experience and education for public school students in grades 8-11. Participants are placed in entry-level, part time employment. Ten percent of the time is reserved for education and training courses. Since demand for the program greatly exceeded capacity, a lottery selection was introduced to select participants with the objective of making the program more equitable and less entrenched. Prior to the lottery selection, some of the community-based organizations (CBOs) in charge of the beneficiary selection had favored certain families with the result that the same children benefited year after year. Introducing the argument of increasing program fairness helped change the CBO’s recruitment practice. Starting in 2003, the new lottery- based system is implemented through a computerized application system, where youth apply for the summer internship online. For 2012, 132,600 applications are received, and total participants are around 30,000. Youth work at private, public and non-profit agencies and receive 18 hours of education in workforce readiness, financial literacy, career exploration, and health education.

Prize-Linked Savings Accounts, San Francisco:
The Prize-Linked Savings Accounts initiative is a three-month afterschool education program sponsored by the Mission San Francisco (SF). This program works with urban-based high school students to promote peer-led financial education and savings.  The program starts with the creation of the peer training group, whereby students are selected to become youth trainers to mentor high school students during the school year. In a previous program, all youth groups who had managed to save a certain amount would enter a lottery, with one winning group receiving the total prize money. Given the small size and closeness between the various young people, the program manager wanted to tap into the existing cohesiveness of the group, to build on the communication and support structure that already existed. As a result, the program was redesigned to provide prizes to multiple awardees that met the savings goals. That way the overall prize money was able to benefit more participants. Over a three month cycle, peer teenager mentors worked with the small group of teenagers to educate and assist them in meeting their savings goals. Lessons learned from the pilot program are the following:

  • Make it easy for youth to save through automatic deposit accounts.
  • Be realistic about the administrative challenge of tracking savings.
  • Integrate peer-to-peer learning as part of the program.
  • Engage youth program leadership early on in the process.
  • Target youth groups that already meet consistently on their own.

For more information:

Department of Youth and Community Development. (2012). Summer Youth Employment Program Annual Summary 2012. See http://www.nyc.gov/html/dycd/downloads/pdf/2012-SYEP_Annual_Summary11-29-2012.pdf

Choi, Laura. (2011). “Prize-Linked Accounts for Youth (PLAY): A New Approach to Youth Financial Education and Savings". See http://www.frbsf.org/community-development/files/CI_Choi.pdf 

[1] See for example Blau, PM (1964). Exchange and power in social life. New York: Wiley; Bos, Kees van den, Wilke, Henk, Lind E Allan, Vermunt Riel (1998) “Evaluating Outcomes by Means of the Fair Process Effect: Evidence for Different Processes in Fairness and Satisfaction Judgments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 74, No. 6, 1493-1503. Lind, EA & Tyler, TR. (1988). The social psychology of procedural justice. New York: Plenum.