Investing in Early Childhood - What can be done?

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ImageSo much has been written recently about the individual, economic and social benefits of investing in early childhood development (ECD), that it is becoming a challenge to summarize these studies. However, ECD is an area that I’m increasingly involved in with my work at The World Bank. Among others, Nobel Laureate Economist, James Heckman and his colleagues have provided very convincing evidence of the benefits of early childhood interventions, including preschool education, on later individual and social outcomes (my colleague and fellow blogger, Jishnu Das looked at Heckman's work in his last blog post "Are Non-Cognitive Gains in Education More Important than Test-Scores?"). These benefits are substantial and varied, ranging from improved education outcomes for the individual, access to better jobs, higher wages, and even lower risks of engaging in criminal activities – which, of course benefits society as a whole.  Moreover, investing early is a better investment than waiting until the child is older, because the costs of achieving comparable benefits through interventions later in life – remedial education in basic education, programs to target at-risk youth, and the like – are so much more costly and also less likely to have an impact. 

But it is striking that, in spite of all this very robust evidence, a majority of systems including where I live here in Washington, DC – systematically under-invest in ECD. What will it take for these systems to prioritize ECD?  Much more than robust empirical evidence carried out by the some of the brightest individuals in the world.

At the family level…
We need to ensure that parents, especially those who are poor and under-educated, know what to do to ensure that their children have the best possible start to life. Governments, the private sector and civil society, need to join forces to communicate with parents and caregivers about the role that nutrition, early stimulation, and adequate healthcare plays from conception through a child’s sixth birthday.  They also need to work together to ensure that all children receive the ECD services they need, and specific interventions when required.  Because of the costs of accessing these services are real, children born to wealthy families, even in the poorest countries, are at a huge advantage with respect to children born in poor household. Paxson and Schady (2007) show that in Ecuador, children from the wealthiest families scored significantly higher on cognitive tests before they even entered first grade than did children from the poorest families. 

At the public policy level…
At the public policy level, three main goals should guide government priorities:

  • (1) Establishing an enabling environment that guarantees the rights of young children,provides and musters from all stakeholders adequate and sufficient financing, and fosters a cross-sectoral approach to ECD;
  • (2) Implementing widely, both in terms of the cross-sectoral programs needed (nutritional interventions, healthcare, and education) and in terms of reaching all the populations – especially remote populations and the most disadvantaged; and
  • (3) Monitoring and assuring the quality of ECD programs, because unless they are of high quality, the impact on children and society will be negligible.


Photo credit: Luc-Charles Gacougnolle, The World Bank (used with photographer's consent).

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