Early childhood development: A smart investment for life

A young boy smiles at the camera, as his mother holds him. Photo Aisha Faquir / World Bank.

Early Childhood Development: A Smart Beginning for Economies on the Rise is one of the events at the 2016 Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group. It will be webcast on April 14, 4:30 pm- 6:00 pm ET.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Inequality starts at birth”? This is one of the most sobering statements in development but one that has an answer and it’s called early childhood development or ECD. No other development investment boasts a higher payoff for people and for economies than ECD.

Recent findings in neuroscience and evidence from around the world demonstrate that early childhood experiences have a profound impact on brain development and on subsequent success later in life. Those first five years of life, starting even before pregnancy begins, do more than build the brain and the body. They decide each child’s lifelong capacity to grow, to learn, to stay healthy, and to interact well with others.

Sadly, the early years can also set back generations and repeat the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality. We know that children who are poorly nourished and do not receive adequate care and stimulation in their earliest years will suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. They are likely to learn less at school, earn less as adults and continue to remain in the poverty trap.

For that reason, ECD is one of the smartest investments a country can make in its future.

If a child gets the health care, nutrition, affection, stimulation, and education that she needs—and that every child deserves—the gains she makes in those early years are hers for life. Almost no matter what befalls her in life, she is not going to lose her advanced aptitude for learning or forget the social skills she obtained.

Over the past generation, economics has illustrated some of these vast long-run benefits of investing in children. ECD also has the added advantage of built-in sustainability.

Evidence from both developed and developing countries suggests a potential return rate of 7–16 percent annually from high-quality preschool programs targeting vulnerable groups. Children who escape stunting stay in school longer, have between 5-50 percent higher incomes as adults and are 33 percent more likely to escape poverty.

Returns are also linked to a range of positive impacts in education and health, reduced risky behaviors in adolescence, and increased productivity among adults. We can see then that ECD is an investment with incredible returns!

Many development investments require constant upkeep, are subject to rapid policy reversals, or risk becoming obsolete as times or conditions change. But ECD endures.

Despite the research, most developing countries underinvest in the early years. The question is: How do we turbo charge this effort? How do we help countries make ECD a priority given its critical role as a foundation for equitable development and economic growth?

Globally, there are many diffuse efforts across ECD, and agendas do not always align. One of the most effective and efficient ways to scale up quality interventions is to address ECD as a cross-sectoral issue that involves much more than any sector-specific system alone, and that empowers parents, caregivers, teachers and health workers.

We need to ensure adequate nutrition that combats stunting; early stimulation, care, and learning that promote socio-emotional, cognitive and linguistic development; and access to clean water and sanitation to guarantee adequate health.

In response to convincing evidence on the benefits of investing in young children, as well as growing demand from countries, the World Bank Group is increasingly supporting ECD. This includes early stimulation, nutrition, social protection, and health, as well as investments in agriculture to ensure food diversity and water and sanitation to ensure clean environments. Improving young children’s opportunities is central to achieving the Bank Group’s twin goals of boosting shared prosperity and ending extreme poverty.

Our investments in ECD have risen dramatically – we invested $6 billion across health, nutrition, social protection and education over the last 15 years, nearly half of which has been over the last two years alone.

In addition to financing projects and research, we are expanding the global knowledge. Impact evaluations of early childhood development programs in low and middle-income countries are already influencing the policy dialogue. The most famous research study on the subject comes from a 20-year study of a group of children in Jamaica, which found that early stimulation interventions in early childhood increased future earnings by 25 percent.

We work directly with governments, but we also collaborate closely with a range of partners, including other multilateral development agencies, bilateral agencies, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations. 

On this note, I invite you to join World Bank Group President Jim Kim, UNICEF Executive Director Tony Lake, and a panel of experts LIVE at 4:30 PM ET on Thursday, April 14 to launch a global movement to ensure that children everywhere can thrive.

Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.
Check out this infographic on ECD.


Keith Hansen

World Bank Country Director for Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda

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