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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Leveling the Playing Field from the Start: The Power of Early Childhood Development

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Today, I had the pleasure of participating in a keynote discussion at the Education World Forum in London--a large annual gathering of education decisionmakers from around the world. We focused this morning on how to use and translate data generated by education systems into better policies and effective results.

My fellow panelists which included Baroness Lindsay Northover, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at the UK’s Department for International Development, and Professor Eric Hanushek from Stanford University, made excellent points about the link between education outcomes and economic growth. They also spoke about the ways to reach the 58 million children from marginalized communities who remain out of school.

I chose to focus on investments in the youngest children, from birth to age 5, before they even enter primary school.
Why? Early childhood development is a very important topic that we don’t talk enough about. It’s critical to level the playing field at this early stage.

In fact, investing in young children through early childhood development programs—ensuring they have the right stimulation, nurturing and nutrition—is one of the smartest investments a country can make to address inequality, break the cycle of poverty, and improve outcomes later in life.

What are the advantages of early childhood development programs? First, these ensure healthy development and protect learning ability. Second, the programs have a long-term impact. They can nurture future productivity and raise income in a child’s adult life. Third, they can be designed in a cost-effective way.

Far too few children, especially those from the poorest families, benefit from this critical service. Consider the data:

  • Less than 50%  of three-year-old to six-year-old children in developing countries receive any form of pre-primary education.
  • Developing countries spend 12 times less on preschool education than the average OECD country.
  • A quarter of all children under age five worldwide are physically stunted, which harms brain development and delays school enrollment.

If we want to improve basic learning outcomes across the world, especially among children from poor families, we need to invest in quality early childhood programs that support growth and cognitive development from a very early age.

I know from firsthand experience in my home country, Brazil, what a difference these programs can make: from Saturday classes for parents who stay at home  with their children to day care centers- targeting the poorest families- staffed with certified and trained early childhood teachers. This is indeed possible and the results are eye-opening and measurable.

The key question is: how can we use data to work together with policymakers to expand the coverage of these programs at a low enough cost that it is affordable and sustainable…given all the existing demands on public resources?

I am pleased to say that early childhood development is an important component of the World Bank Group’s Learning for Insurance Education Strategy. Over the past 14 years, we have invested $4 billion in early childhood development through multi-sectoral projects, including health, nutrition, education and social assistance.

Last month, we presented a new publication for policy makers and practitioners about how to invest in young children titled “Stepping up Early Childhood Development.” This guide identifies 25 essential interventions that span the education, health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and social protection sectors. We also recently launched an eLearning course on strategies to help children get a head start.

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 impact evaluation on the subject comes from a 20-year study of a group of children in Jamaica, which found that combining health and education interventions in early childhood increased future earnings by 25%.

Another example is the World Bank’s evaluation of a community-based preschool program in Mozambique run by Save the Children, which showed that children enrolled in preschool were better prepared for the demands of schooling than children who did not attend preschool and that they were more likely to start primary school by age six. Mozambique has now invested more in young children.

We know that early nutrition and well-designed parenting programs through home visits can be very effective in avoiding stunting and improving the interaction between caregiver and children under two. Quality, center-based care, such as in preschools, for children aged three to six has also shown positive impacts in a number of settings. Cash transfers have been documented as having significant, positive impacts in a child’s development, particularly when cash grants are paired with parenting information. There is a valuable discussion on the importance of parenting practices and mindset in our latest World Development Report on Mind, Society, and Behavior, in its fifth chapter.

What is the next step? We (collectively) need to redouble our efforts to continue to think outside of the box and experiment with different approaches/alternatives (technology and media, for example, have a huge untapped potential; rigorously evaluate along the way; and refine our projects and policy advice accordingly and on an ongoing basis.

At the World Bank Group, we are committed to use data to continue ramping up our support to early childhood development programs and knowledge generation. I invite you to tell me about your experience.

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