For the past 10 years, the Best of UNICEF Research annual competition, run by UNICEF Innocenti, has invited UNICEF colleagues around the world to submit their latest and best research for children.
The Best of UNICEF Research 2022 showcases 12 powerful studies from around the world grouped according to UNICEF's five strategic priorities, as well as those covering multiple goals.
Submitted by UNICEF offices from around the world, Best of UNICEF Research showcases quality research with a high potential for impact to benefit children. These studies focus on reducing inequalities and discrimination, addressing gaps in knowledge, and seeking new perspectives. Many of the studies are innovative in their methods and use of technologies.
Download the full report or scroll through summaries of the winning papers below.
Every child has the right to grow up healthy and strong. And yet, poverty, the environment, malnutrition, inadequate care, and maternal health prevent millions of children from surviving and thriving. Three studies explore what can be done to ensure children live a healthy and fulfilled life.
How does formula milk marketing influence mothers’ feeding decisions?
Breastfeeding gives children the healthiest start in life, with substantial benefits in terms of growth and development. International organizations, including UNICEF and WHO, have made global public health recommendations that children should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Yet formula milk marketing continues to negatively affect breastfeeding practices by positioning milk formula products as equivalent or superior to breast milk.
China has become the world’s biggest market for infant formula milk, and only 1 in 5 infants under 6 months are exclusively breastfed. This multi-faceted study of formula milk marketing in China demonstrates the pervasiveness of marketing activity across multiple channels, and how it directly and indirectly influences mothers’ decisions about how to feed their children.
OFFICE OF GLOBAL INNOVATION HQ AND LACRO IN COLLABORATION WITH PERU AND BRAZIL
How can we forecast dengue fever epidemics more accurately?
Climate change is increasing the risk and prevalence of certain diseases, which includes dengue fever. Because dengue is a vector-borne disease – carried by mosquitoes, and then by those infected with it – it spreads rapidly, particularly under climate conditions where mosquitoes thrive. Being able to predict such outbreaks would help health authorities implement effective control measures and mitigate the effects of the disease.
Using an ensemble machine learning model involving satellite based meteorological products and socioeconomic data, this study was able to forecast dengue epidemics more accurately in Brazil and Peru. The same innovative approach could be applied in other countries, and possibly even for other diseases.
Are adolescent girls in Lebanon able to access the healthcare they want and need?
In Lebanon, adolescent girls make up a particularly high proportion of the population. Adolescent girls also form a particularly vulnerable demographic group, and face disproportionate risks compared with the rest of the population. These include higher risk of exposure to early marriage, violence and abuse, and poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Providing adequate healthcare and support during adolescence is critical to their future.
The findings of this study provided compelling insights into the challenges that adolescent girls from the Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian communities face when it comes to accessing primary healthcare, in particular mental and reproductive health services. These findings have informed the Ministry of Public Health strategy for youth healthcare and the development of youth-friendly services in primary care.
Every child has the right to an education and quality learning opportunities from early childhood to adolescence. And yet, a range of factors – including location, economic circumstances, gender, disability, teaching quality, conflicts and shocks – prevent millions of children from learning. Two studies explore how this goal can be achieved in Morocco and the Philippines.
What was it like to teach under COVID-19 lockdown?
Across the world, COVID-19 lockdowns led to school closures and disruptions to education, prompting a rapid adaptation to new modalities of distance learning. While most of the evidence focused on students’ experiences with online learning, limited research has examined teachers’ practices. This study instead focuses on teachers’ experiences of distance learning, including implementation and pedagogical challenges, and the impact on students’ performance in Morocco.
This investigation of teachers’ experiences during the lockdown was able to provide timely insights to the Government of Morocco about the practical challenges posed by the implementation of distance learning across the country. The results also informed the revision of a government-powered e-learning platform and a national strategy for safe return to schools.
How effective is early child education and what influences its success?
The education system in the Philippines has undergone a significant transformation over the last decade. This research was designed to assess how effective these changes had been and to provide evidence around children’s cognitive and social development to inform the ongoing implementation of the Early Years Act. It sought to understand how children develop in three different contexts: in disaster-prone areas, conflict-affected areas and urban poor areas. It examined what impact education was having on their development and, where possible, what factors affected the impact.
The longitudinal study has generated reliable evidence on the positive impact of preschool education on students’ cognitive performance and socioemotional skills in the Philippines. The findings are informing advocacy strategies and curriculum decisions, but also make a case for targeted interventions, particularly in conflict-affected areas.
Goal Area 3: Every child is protected from violence and exploitation
Every child has the right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse. And yet, social norms, cultural practices, intra-state conflict and displacement, and other harmful actions undermine children’s safety and well-being. Two studies show how we can better protect children from harmful practices.
How prevalent is lethal and sexual violence against children?
In Brazil, children and particularly adolescents are at high risk of violent death and sexual assault. But, until now, data have not been sufficiently detailed or consistent to show the level of risk.
This study provides the first complete overview of the number of incidents of lethal and sexual violence recorded against children in Brazil, and the ages of the victims. The staggering rates of violence uncovered in this research – including violence against infants – generated widespread media coverage and jolted authorities into action. UNICEF continues to work with authorities across Brazil to improve the recording of data related to lethal and sexual violence against children and develop targeted interventions.
SOCIAL AND BEHAVIOUR CHANGE AND CHILD PROTECTION TEAMS, PROGRAMME GROUP, HQ SILVER WINNER
How can we accelerate change in social norms around female genital mutilation?
In 2008, the UNFPA–UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was formed with the ultimate goal to end FGM by 2030. Despite the introduction of laws prohibiting FGM in many countries, the evidence demonstrates the continued prevalence of FGM. This is widely perceived to be driven by embedded social norms. The Joint Programme seeks to change those norms, using human rights-based and culturally sensitive approaches to implement social and behaviour change initiatives. However, until now, there has been no commonly used or validated methodology for monitoring whether norms are indeed changing.
This long-term project developed and validated a robust and adaptable framework for measuring change in social norms related to FGM and assessing the contribution of social and behavioural change interventions. The framework is already becoming a vital tool in informing social and behaviour change initiatives and accelerating efforts to eliminate FGM.
Goal Area 4: Every child lives in a safe and clean environment
Every child has a right to live in an environment that is conducive to his or her growth and safety, including being protected from pollutants and other hazards. Yet, climate change, weak governance, unplanned urbanization, and insufficient awareness of the dangers posed by environmental risks expose millions of children to potential harm. Two studies look at ensuring secure access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for children.
LACRO GOLD WINNER
What measures did different countries adopt to protect access to water, sanitation and hygiene services during the pandemic?
From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, frequent handwashing with soap was identified as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infection. However, there was still an urgent need for WASH sector stakeholders to find innovative ways to enable continued access to services.
While policymakers and public health officials acted fast, they were operating in an unprecedented situation with limited knowledge of what could work. They needed as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, about the measures they could take. In response to this urgent need, the WASH team at UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office (LACRO), in partnership with Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), began a process of collating information about the WASH measures being taken by 84 countries to help them optimize and coordinate their response to the pandemic.
DIVISION OF DATA, ANALYTICS, PLANNING AND MONITORING HQ BRONZE WINNER
How can we get better data about drinking water quality – and how can we use those data more effectively?
Most of the available data about water quality come from regulators and are often inconsistent between regions and countries. They typically focus on the water supplied via piped networks in urban areas and often exclude non-piped supplies and rural areas.
This study addresses the gap in water quality monitoring, through incorporating a water quality module into the UNICEF-supported Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) programme. By demonstrating the robustness of a field test for contamination, this study has transformed how to monitor access to safe drinking water. The baseline data, gathered from more than 60,000 households across 27 countries, has sparked a wide range of discussions at national and international level about potential steps to address risks.
Goal Area 5: Every child has an equitable chance in life
Every child has the right to fulfil his or her potential. And yet, extreme poverty, geography, conflict, discrimination, exclusion and other barriers hold back millions of children around the world, with lifelong consequences for themselves and their societies as inequity and deprivation perpetuate poverty across generations. The following study from Burundi highlights the benefits of increasing investment in early childhood development.
BURUNDI SPECIAL MENTION
How can we demonstrate the value of investing in early childhood development?
It is well established that early childhood is the most important window in which a foundation for future development is laid. But with competing priorities for government expenditure, early childhood development (ECD) is often overlooked.
This study from Burundi examines the results from a rigorous cost–benefit analysis of increasing investment in early childhood development and provides evidence of the value and high return on investment in this sector. This analysis has led to the development of a national multisectoral ECD strategy and the prioritization of ECD investment in Burundi.
The are two studies that cover multiple goals this year. The first examines youth transitions to adulthood in Jordan, and the second explores protective practices that were used to inform country-level programming during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the aspirations of young people in Jordan and what barriers do they face to achieving them?
Jordan’s challenging economic situation over the last two decades has disproportionately affected young people and women. At the end of 2021, women’s employment rate was one of the lowest in the world, while youth unemployment reached nearly 50 per cent. This is particularly concerning, given that almost a third of the country’s population are between 16 and 30 years old.
This research explores the aspirations and experiences of young Jordanians and Syrians living in Jordan. The analysis provides a detailed picture of the challenges facing young people in Jordan as they transition from education to employment. It demonstrates the widening gap between aspiration and opportunity, and highlights the additional barriers faced by young women and Syrian refugees in the country.
EVALUATION OFFICE HQ, SOCIAL AND BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE TEAM HQ, ROSA, ESARO
How can evolving community behaviors in relation to COVID-19 be tracked for real-time decision-making?
From the very start of the pandemic, global efforts to control COVID-19 transmission have relied on compliance with key protective behaviours, such as physical distancing, handwashing and, latterly, vaccine uptake. Understanding these behaviours and attitudes towards them – including how they differ among population groups and how and why they change over time – is crucial in designing an effective response.
This research examines the insights of a Community Rapid Assessment (CRA) that was conducted in 12 countries. The study was able to provide UNICEF programmes and governments with real-time data about protective practices, access to services, trust and coping strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. This information was used promptly to inform country-level programming and risk communication initiatives.