by Quentin Wodon
“The child who has gone to a preschool can study in primary school with more ease than a child who joins a primary school directly”. Unfortunately, “preschool fees range from 50,000 to 150,000 Shillings (US$ 20-60) per term of three months. Most parents cannot afford this, so many of them wait until their children are of age to start primary school”.
These quotes from Ugandan villages illustrate how parents value investments in young children, but often cannot afford them. The same is true for healthcare and nutrition. Early years are essential for children’s development. Unfortunately, investments in early childhood development (ECD) remain low in most countries. This is the case not only for governments, but also for the private sector and philanthropies. Investments in ECD can be shown to have larger returns than investments later in life. And yet public and private resources allocated to ECD are small in comparison to resources invested in other areas.
Complexity of ECD
The lack of sufficient investments in ECD stems in part from the complexity of the field. The fact that the early years of a child – from birth to seven or eight years – are crucial is now well recognized in the scientific literature. But ECD policies and programs are complex and managed by multiple public and private service providers, regulatory agencies, and ministries, including those in charge of education, healthcare, and social protection. Policy makers and practitioners may be expert in one specific area –maternal or child mortality, preschool education, nutrition, or child protection. But their knowledge of other areas may be limited. It is of course not necessary for all to be experts on all matters related to ECD. But more awareness of the comprehensive nature of the investments needed would help in improving ECD programs and marshalling more resources towards them.
To some extent, service club organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions are an exception in terms of their investment strategies. Their signature initiatives all focus on young children – these are polio eradication through vaccination for Rotary, tackling iodine deficiency for Kiwanis, and avoiding blindness and promoting child health for Lions. But again, few members of service clubs are aware of what needs to be done more broadly to give each child a great start in life. And to some extent, the same is true for policy makers and practitioners.
New Online Course
The good news is that resources are available to learn about ECD. These resources now include a new and free online self-spaced e-learning course from the World Bank. The course consists of three interactive web-based modules that aim to answer three simple questions: (1) Why invest in ECD?; (2) What matters for ECD?; and (3) How to implement ECD interventions. The online course takes four to five hours to complete (about 45 minutes for the first module, 75 minutes for the second, and 120 minutes for the third). The completion of the three modules need not be done in one go – each individual learner can go through the course at her/his own pace, stop for a while, and come back later. After each topic questions are provided for review.
This post is the first in a series of three on this e-learning course that aim to answer in a concise way the above three questions: the why, what, and how of ECD. The hope is that the three posts will enable readers to decide whether it would be worthwhile for them to take the online course, and if they do not, to at least provide them with a few useful resources on ECD.
Why Invest in ECD?
So let’s start with the first question – which is actually the easiest and fastest to answer of the three. Why should governments, NGOs, and service clubs invest in ECD? There are both scientific and economic arguments in favor of investments in young children.
From a scientific point of view, neurological studies show that synapses develop rapidly during a child’s first few years, forming the basis of cognitive and emotional functioning for life. Adequate nutrition, especially from conception to age two, and stimulation in a child’s early years play a critical role in brain development. Malnutrition in the early years leads not only to poor physical growth, but can impede brain development; malnutrition is also linked with delayed cognitive development and low academic achievement throughout a child’s life. Great resources on this scientific evidence are available from the National Council on the Developing Child. Another resource is the Lancet’s second Child Development in Developing Countries series.
From an economic point of view, while the specific rate of return on investments in ECD depends on a number of factors, including the focus of a program, duration of exposure and quality, these rates of return have been shown to be as high as 17:1 according to Nobel Economist James Heckman (many of his papers on ECD are available here). Just as one example, increasing preschool enrollment to 50 percent in low- and middle-income countries could result in additional lifetime earnings of $15-$34 billion according to a paper by Engle and others in the Lancet series. An often used stylized visualization o the high returns to investments in ECD is provided in the Figure below from a paper by Heckman and Carneiro that argues that investments in ECD often have higher returns than investments in human capital later in life.
Another example may help make the case for the high economic returns to investments in ECD. In a paper published in May 2014 in Science, Gertler, Heckman and others looked at an intervention conducted in 1986–87 in Jamaica to provide psychosocial stimulation to growth-stunted toddlers through weekly visits from community health workers over a two year period. The intervention increased earnings of the beneficiary (treatment) group by 25 percent versus the earnings of children in the control group.
While not all interventions achieve such dramatic results, the evidence is strong that investments in ECD can make a dramatic difference in the life of children, especially for children from disadvantaged groups. The ECD period presents a unique window of opportunity to improve a wide range of outcomes later in life. Conversely, a lack of investment in young children can lead to irreversible damage and long term disadvantage. In the next two posts, the questions of what matters for ECD and how to implement ECD interventions will be discussed.
Note: This series of three posts is based on the e-learning course mentioned above, which was developed by a World Bank team comprising of Amina Denboba, Monica McLin, Michelle Neuman, Rebecca Kraft Sayre, Yidan Wang, and the author.