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The Promise of Early Childhood Development

Saadia Iqbal's picture

Submitted by Emiliana Vegas, expert on Early Childhood Development at the World Bank. With thanks to Carlos Molina, Regional Web Editor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank.

So much has been written in recent years about the value of investing in young children. The Nobel Prize economist James Heckman and his colleagues have documented that Early Childhood Development (ECD) programs have higher returns than human capital investments later on in life, including formal schooling and job training.

The medical journal Lancet dedicated an entire issue to summarizing the results from various research projects convincingly showing that so-called ECD interventions—in a variety of countries and settings—have high returns, ranging from a child’s healthy development and growth, to the ability to learn throughout life, complete high levels of schooling, and access good jobs. In addition, research has shown that high quality early childhood interventions result in lower rates of criminal activity, drug use, and other “risky behaviors.”
Children exercising at school in Indonesia. Photo: Ray Witlin/World Bank

At the World Bank, a number of colleagues and I spent the last few years researching and summarizing this research, focusing on its lessons for Latin America and the Caribbean countries. 

We also looked at the status of young children in this region –whether they are adequately nourished, have access to healthcare, and early childhood education— while reviewing a wide range of ECD programs, including how they work and with what effects. Our research, as well as those of others, indicates that ECD investment is not only economically efficient in that it yields high returns per dollar invested, but also levels the playing field for young children by providing equal opportunities, regardless of the circumstances at conception and birth. This is a contributing factor to wealth creation and to ending the cycle of poverty.

Given all this research, why aren’t all governments shifting their investments to ensure that pregnant mothers have access to high quality antenatal care, and that newborns and young children get adequate nutrition and stimulation? Why aren’t they focused on expanding access to high quality early childhood care and education centers?

There is surely not one answer to these questions, but let me speculate.

Policymakers are subject to a number of competing demands, and young children don’t have as strong a voice, for example, as do university students. So, in a majority of countries, public spending in higher education is much greater than in early childhood education, even though economic research indicates that the efficient response from government should be the reverse. 

Similarly, while the returns to ECD are very high, these do not accrue in most politicians’ relevant time cycle. 

As a result, only those politicians who want to leave a legacy beyond their electoral period would be persuaded to invest in early childhood development.

What can be done to reverse this pattern?  We are excited to see that leading artists and businessmen in the region united under Shakira’s ALAS Foundation, have committed to raising awareness about ECD and are partnering with knowledge institutions, such as the World Bank and the Earth Institute), to promote best practices in ECD as informed by solid research.

We are enthusiastic to see that international agencies are committing increased resources, including their technical staff’s time to expand research and lending to countries to increase their investments in ECD.

But ultimately, it is each country’s leadership that needs to commit to investing in ECD, so that children throughout the world may reach their full potential.