Comprehensive early childhood interventions to build human capital

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Comprehensive early childhood interventions to build human capital Early investments in children strongly affect human development outcomes, such as health and income later in life. Copyright: Nahuel Berger/World Bank

Are we doing enough to ensure that every child can reach their full potential? Research suggests that the first years of a child's life are crucial for their long-term development and success but knowledge gaps on how to best achieve progress still exist.

Early investments in children strongly affect human development outcomes, such as health or income later in life. However, despite the overwhelming evidence on the effectiveness of investing in early childhood development, there are still significant gaps in providing the necessary support to children, especially those from low-income backgrounds. For example, 250 million children below the age of five, or 43 percent of all children from low- and middle-income countries, did not fulfill their development potential, such as their cognitive or socio-emotional development, in 2016.

Determining effective interventions

Universal and comprehensive early childhood interventions are a new approach that could significantly improve educational outcomes. Given the gaps in existing support, it is crucial to understand the effectiveness of different interventions.  A recent paper, published in the Journal of Population Economics, explores the impact of a pioneering program called "Chile Crece Contigo" (ChCC), which was introduced in Chile in 2007. ChCC is one of the world's first comprehensive and universal early childhood development programs, offering a range of services to children and their families. The World Bank has been actively involved in providing technical assistance to the design of ChCC through its “Investing in the Early Years” strategy.

ChCC stands out as a pioneer program due to its universal and comprehensive approach. It targets all children in Chile, providing a wide range of services from prenatal checkups to access to public health systems, nurseries, kindergartens, and support for vulnerable families. The program follows the best practices identified in child development literature. Studying ChCC is of high policy relevance, as it has served as a model for similar programs in other countries.

Comprehensive and universal early childhood development programs have positive effects

The findings of the study indicate that program exposure has positive and significant effects on educational outcomes. While the effects are small compared to alternative programs studied in the academic literature, they are still meaningful. Moreover, the program's impact on educational outcomes is cost-effective, as it pays for itself in the long run through increased lifetime earnings, and, therefore, increased tax returns for the government. The marginal value of public funds, one measure of the cost-benefit ratio of public policies faced by the government, is large compared to other early childhood development programs. Research shows that policies targeting children often have high returns, higher than those that target adults. Overall, the findings highlight the cost-effectiveness and social welfare benefits of the ChCC program, also relative to alternative interventions. Future research could explore a more comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of ChCC, considering other outcomes beyond education.

The study also reveals that the effects of program exposure vary by socioeconomic status. Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to benefit less from the program compared to their peers. This highlights the need to address the drivers of pre-existing gaps between different socioeconomic groups and improve the design of comprehensive programs to ensure equitable outcomes for all children.

Comprehensive and universal interventions are beneficial, but putting special emphasis on vulnerable children is recommended

The findings highlight the importance of early investments in shaping long-term outcomes and provide insights for policymakers and practitioners working in the field of early childhood development. Policymakers should invest in understanding the impact of different interventions and identify potential entry points for improvement in existing programs. This requires sound data environments in the educational sector and accounting for evaluations already during the design stage of these types of programs. By identifying the programs that work best in each setup, we can implement the most cost-effective and cost-efficient solution. Consequently, we work towards closing existing gaps in early childhood development and ultimately providing every child with the foundation they need to thrive.

The World Bank is involved in several projects related to early childhood development. In 2018-2020, investments in early childhood development accounted for 11 percent of IDA financing. The overall efforts are linked to partnerships, for example with UNICEF, UNESCO, or WHO, and external engagement. In addition, there is catalytic financing to build the pipeline and improve the portfolio quality through country grants. Moreover, teams produce global and country-level analytical work to make the case for early childhood development and find solutions. Capacity-building, both externally and internally, is another important agenda. 

What the paper discussed in this blog post shows is that, although comprehensive early childhood development programs are a worthwhile investment, we need to pay more attention to how to reach the most vulnerable children and families. 

For more information, read the paper: Middle-run educational impacts of comprehensive early childhood interventions: evidence from a pioneer program in Chile (


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Britta Rude

Economist in the Poverty and Equity Global Practice of the World Bank.

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