Why should we put more money into early childhood development interventions? Does this help children in secondary education? Should we invest in preschool programmes or more in home stimulation or parenting classes? What is most cost-effective? These are key questions that policymakers are grappling with at a time when early childhood development is emerging as a priority issue for many developing countries.
Evidence recently presented at a 3ie UCL conference on “Promises for Preschoolers” is clearly calling for more investment in young lives at an early age. These are crucial years where strategic investments can make a huge difference in generating success in adulthood.
More than 200 million children under the age of five in developing countries are not fulfilling their developmental potential. Currently the focus has been more on pre-schoolers from age three to six, but there are some gaps that emerge quite early in children from zero to three.
For Sally Grantham McGregor who is a leading expert in the field and led a long-term evaluation of a large scale home visit intervention in Jamaica and now recently in Colombia, early stimulation can have significant benefits for the child’s development, education and long-term livelihood. In the case of Jamaica, preliminary findings reveal that these positive effects also rub off the next generation (view interview with Sally Grantham McGregor on early stimulation).
“The trade-off is not between investing in children under three as opposed to pre-schoolers, but at the moment the money is not going to the under three”. Grantham McGregor also stressed that nutrition interventions can benefit children development if conducted before the child turns two and early stimulation is critical till age five.
While there is growing evidence on the impact of early childhood development, 3ie Executive Director Howard White said “we need more evidence to show the long term effects of such interventions in reducing poverty. 3ie is also planning to finance more follow-up evaluations to see if the benefits are sustained through to second grade and in later life.” (view interview with Howard White from the Promises for Preschoolers conference).
Micronutrients supplementation is another type of intervention that can provide tremendous gain for children suffering from malnutrition, particularly in countries in Africa and South Asia. DfID Chief Economist Stefan Dercon called this the “next frontier”. “We still have an awful lot to do in the space of under nutritional stunting and this is where I think we know increasingly what to do and how to do it” (view video “Micronutrients: the next frontier?”).
However, Jere Behrman from University of Pennsylvenia pointed out that “one has to pay much more attention to the context and look at tailoring the type of intervention to the specific needs and demand in the country”. Orazio Attanasio from University College London also said “there are big challenges in nutrition intervention both because the child may be affected by parasites and because administering the right supplements can be difficult in the field and mothers may not give them to their children” (view video interview with Orazio Attanasio on the next frontier for early childhood development).
For Orazio Attanasio the “gap is to start thinking of integrated intervention and how one can design a programme where you start very early and follow the child when he or she gets to school. There you need to engage and coordinate with different ministries and agencies”.