Doubling down on early childhood development in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Centro Aeiotú, Bogotá. / Foto: Yanina Budkin

Two years after the World Bank joined forces with Shakira and ALAS to create the Early Childhood Initiative, a happy second birthday for the program will mean millions of happier birthdays for children throughout the region.

About 5 million children and their mothers are already enjoying the benefits of this initiative which has seen investments of $400 million—more than double what we expected by this stage, and $100 million more than the total forecast for the program overall.

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These investments support early childhood development (ECD) projects in nearly all countries of the region, covering a wide range of activities such as better access to health, nutrition and education services for children 0 to 6.

“Doubling down” on early childhood development (ECD) shows that client countries in Latin America and the Caribbean recognize that investing early is investing smartly. No other development investment boasts a higher payoff for people and for economies than ECD.

Those first five years of life 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.

For that reason, ECD is a now-or-never investment. Once she’s on it, a child’s developmental path is all but irreversible. This unforgiving fact can stunt a child’s life chances almost from the outset. But it can also work powerfully in her favor.

If she 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 will be likewise irreversible.

Almost no matter what befalls her in life, she is not going to shrink the extra inches she grew, 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. (It’s always fun watching economists learn what most everyone else has known for centuries.) ECD also has the added advantage of in-built sustainability.

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

So countries in the region have moved past the “why” of ECD, and are now exploring the “how” and the “with whom.” Each program has its own formula for how best to invest in children. 

Diverse approaches, one goal

Some work through a single government body to address specific challenges such as child health or preschool education. These can be very successful, such as Argentina’s Plan Nacer, which by building performance and accountability tools for health service providers and provincial governments, has produced proven better health outcomes.

Mexico has had similar success in the education sector, where universal preschool education will translate into better education outcomes over time.

Other approaches are cross-cutting. Some form partnerships with various levels of government and civil society, across the social sectors and beyond. In Bolivia’s poorest urban districts, municipalities are ramping up childcare services so that more young mothers can secure jobs, in coordination with the ministry of labor.

In Belize, local communities are offering services integrated across the social spectrum from maternal health right through to promoting healthy lifestyles in local schools.

One of the most notable examples worldwide of a cross-sectoral approach is Chile Crece Contigo (“Chile grows with you.”) To reduce gaps and overlaps, it built a comprehensive system that monitors children from prenatal development through to entering school at age 5. The program allows for seamless coordination between ministries of health, education and social protection, and ensures that all children receive the package of services they require.

Similarly, as part of our south-south cooperation, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are on their way to developing comprehensive ECD policies. The Bank has been bringing together government officials from social sector ministries (e.g. health and education) and central ministries (e.g. planning and finance) to work with civil society to forge unified strategies for national and local priorities.

The best first step to such cross-sectoral work is often simply to map out which institutions are working where, to assemble a complete picture of the childcare centers, preschools, health clinics, and other service providers, and find opportunities for collaboration.

Such mapping was the starting point of our collaboration with 28 municipalities in Brazil. Both Central America and Brazil have also benefitted from a study tour to Chile to witness Crece Contigo in action.

In the past decade Latin America has enjoyed rising growth and falling poverty. But it has a long way yet to go. Until every member of society is equipped to take advantage of this expanding opportunity, the region will continue to fall far short of its potential. Building such capacity begins even before birth.

With support from the Early Childhood Initiative, countries are now vastly ramping up their investments in children. The Bank is doubling down with them, confident that this a very safe bet indeed.


Keith Hansen

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

Peter Holland

Lead Education Specialist, Africa Region, World Bank

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