Are We Offering Youth Bicycles or Unicycles? A Case for Integrated Programming


A unicycle is a very simple machine that lack breaks, gears, or chains. It looks fun to ride, but it actually takes great skill to keep balanced because it does almost nothing on its own. In contrast, a bicycle’s sturdy frame, gears and breaks give users much greater control over where they are heading, with a fraction of the effort a unicycle demands.

bicycleLike bicycles, programming for youth needs to have a solid frame that intentionally and systematically brings together the constituent parts of participants’ lives. Like the two wheels of a bike, program pieces should be constructed to work in tandem with one another. Many narrowly focused programs more closely resemble unicycles in that they present youth with valuable information — but without connection to other support services.

An example of the bicycle model of program development is having the forethought to bring together two interconnected policy areas into a single educational program. Let me share an example from Making Cents International’s work in Zambia over the past five years.

Social isolation, economic vulnerability, and lack of appropriate health information and services are critical challenges that prevent a healthy transition from girlhood into womanhood in Zambia. Interventions designed by Making Cents and our partners aim to alleviate some of those societal issues for low-income Zambian adolescent girls.

To do so, Making Cents has worked with the National Savings Bank of Zambia and the Population Council, an organization that conducts research and delivers solutions to improve lives around the world, as well as local implementing partners, to develop a package of social, economic, and health intervention activities for adolescent girls between the ages of 10 to 19. Like a bicycle, each element of a youth development program works in tandem with the others. The reality of day-to-day life for a low-income young woman is that health and financial decisions overlap. Therefore, it is imperative that health and financial education programming and content be connected and supportive of one another.

In practice, that means that we must recognize that a young woman’s choice about how to raise the money to cover expenses, such as by exchanging sex for school fees or other immediate needs, directly impacts her health and overall quality of life. Given that understanding, we can be proactive in supporting the judgment-free acquisition of the skills, materials, and social assets that girls need to be able to make healthy and well-informed choices.

This approach is in stark contrast with more “unicycle-style” initiatives in which social, health, and economic opportunity elements are delivered in a siloed or stand-alone manner, each one focusing narrowly on its priority topics and leaving it to participating girls to apply the relatively abstract information presented to them in other aspects of their lives.

In the unicycle model, sessions about financial literacy, for instance, focus narrowly on reasons and methods to save money. However, they fail to take into account either the relatively safe and unsafe ways that money can be earned, or the family and peer pressures girls can face when deciding what to do with their limited income.

Even worse, the unicycle model presents the idea of saving money as being obvious, or “smart” — rather than complex or involving challenging trade-offs.

As our programs get more specialized, the need for intentional and systematic linkages between seemingly unconnected programs becomes even more important. We need to ensure we give those in need the ability to ride a bicycle, not ask one person to figure out how to ride several unicycles at once. That can make all the difference in improving program effectiveness.

Multi-faceted activities that provide potentially life-changing knowledge, like an awareness of healthcare options in Zambia or job-training programs that can help lift individuals out of poverty, build on one another to have a cumulative effect larger than any individual program.

For more on integrated youth programming, consider participating in the October 6-8 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit in Washington DC formed around the theme of “Scale in Practice”.