In the midst of the U.S. presidential primaries, candidates from both parties have answered questions about their commitment to backing early-childhood development around the world. In different settings, the leading presidential candidates have said they would make such an effort a priority if elected.
Of course, securing promises on the campaign trail is much easier than making sure such promises are fulfilled. But regardless of who becomes the next U.S. president, these questions during the election season have drawn attention to the importance of improving children’s early years.
The problem is enormous. Worldwide, just under 6 million children a year die before their fifth birthday, with children born into poverty almost twice as likely to die as those from wealthier families. Among those who survive, more than 200 million children under the age of 5 fail to reach their cognitive, social, and physical potential because of poverty, malnutrition, and deprivation. Nearly half the world’s children currently do not have access to any form of education before they enter 1st grade. And it’s not just developing countries that struggle to provide for their children. The United States ranks 26th out of 29 “rich” countries on UNICEF’s most recent child-well-being report.
The Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls are not alone in wanting to prioritize the youngest members of the human race. In September 2015, the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals called for “inclusive and quality education for all” within 15 years, including “access to quality early-childhood development, care, and preprimary education for all girls and boys.” The World Bank, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization all strongly endorse investing in early childhood, and governments and parents are increasingly on board.
The research behind early-childhood development is unassailable. Coordinated health, education, and social-protection services starting before birth and lasting through the first years of formal schooling offer unparalleled opportunities to shape an individual’s lifelong trajectory. Children who participate in quality early-childhood programs are more motivated and ready to learn; have higher self-esteem; are better at solving problems; and have stronger cognitive, language, and social-emotional abilities when they enter school—all of which results in improved long-term academic outcomes.
Investing in children doesn’t just help children. It also helps the economy and society in general. Nobel laureate James Heckman has found a 7 percent to 10 percent per annum return on dollars invested in high-quality programs for disadvantaged children in the United States. The returns in developing countries have been calculated to be even higher. Investments in early childhood have been shown to reduce inequality, the gender gap, and poverty, and to promote more peaceful, socially inclusive societies.
It’s hard to see who could be against early-childhood development, a proven prophylactic for so many societal ills. The question is, how do we go about delivering it to the world?
Investing in children doesn't just help children. It also helps the economy and society in general."
We have successful models. In 1994, I helped launch Step by Step, an early-childhood-development program funded by the Open Society Foundations in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, based on the United States’ Head Start model. Step by Step began as a two-year initiative to introduce child-centered teaching methods and family involvement to early-education systems in 15 countries. In the first 10 years, the program reached more than 200,000 teachers and teaching professionals who have had a positive impact on millions of children’s lives. Today, Step by Step has evolved into a network of independent nongovernmental organizations in 38 countries promoting quality, accessible early-childhood development for all children.
According to a report by UNESCO, achieving the education-related Sustainable Development Goals in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 will cost an estimated $239 billion annually. But scaling up early-childhood development on a global level will also require that a skilled workforce and comprehensive programming are in place before a program is launched in any given country; that nonprofits, donors, and governments commit to development across multiple sectors simultaneously, including health, social services, and education; and that the most vulnerable, hardest-to-reach children are not left out.
We must support emerging national, regional, and global professional and advocacy organizations dedicated to improving the lives of the youngest children and their families, while working strategically with governments to establish a cadre of experienced staff to design and implement policies and programs.
The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the World Bank have shown they understand that children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive well-being are inextricably linked. Now, large government agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development must follow their lead by increasing investments in programs supporting developmental aims that go beyond child survival and basic education. One way to ensure countries embark on a holistic approach is to tie the measures used to track progress on the Sustainable Development Goals to children’s overall development, rather than relying on such proxy indicators as stunting or poverty.
Finally, the global approach must be inclusive if we do not want gaps in equity to continue to grow. Early-childhood development is not just for children in developing countries. It’s also for children in working-class families in middle-income countries. It’s for children from historically marginalized populations like the Roma in Europe or African-Americans in the United States. And it’s for children with disabilities everywhere, who need fewer special services later in life when they receive intervention early and are educated in regular classrooms alongside their peers. Early-childhood development, in other words, is for all children. For all of us.
We’ve promised it. Now, let’s make it happen.