• A child’s earliest years present a window of opportunity to address inequality. The potential benefits from supporting early childhood development (ECD) range from healthy development to greater capacity to learn while in school and increased productivity in adulthood.

    In fact, investing in young children through ECD 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. Evidence from both developed and developing countries suggests that an additional dollar invested in high quality preschool programs will yield a return of anywhere between US$6 and US$17.

    A 20-year follow-up study of children in Jamaica by Nobel laureate James Heckman, Paul Gertler and others showed that combining health and education interventions in early childhood increased future earnings by 25 percent. This finding has profound significance in a world where nearly a billion people live in extreme poverty.

    Developing countries have expanded access to preschool provision in the past decade, with all regions of the world increasing preprimary enrolment. Yet, today, far too few children, especially those from the poorest families, benefit from this critical service:

    • Across the world, nearly half of all three to six year olds (159 million children) are deprived of access to pre-primary education (UIS, 2012). In Sub-Saharan Africa, 80 percent are not enrolled in pre-primary programs, while 45 percent lack access in South Asia.
    • A quarter of all children under age five worldwide (i.e. 162 million children) are physically stunted, which harms brain development and delays school enrolment.
    • Countries under-invest in ECD. One percent of GNP is the minimum public investment required to ensure provision of quality ECD services, and average government spending for children aged 0-6 years across OECD countries is estimated at 2.36 percent of GNP. While comparable data are not readily available across LICs and MICs, many governments spend only between 0.1 and 0.2 percent of GNP on preschool education, which likely leaves them far below the 1 percent benchmark for overall ECD funding.

    Key Issues

    Improving basic learning outcomes across the world, especially among children from poor families, requires investing in quality early childhood programs that support physical growth and overall development (including cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional) from a very early age.

    Low levels of school readiness

    From an education perspective, early gaps in cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional skills jeopardize a child’s capacity and motivation to learn upon entering primary school. Low levels of school readiness can lead to costly inefficiencies in the education system as these children are more likely to have poor academic performance, repeat grades, and drop out of school before they complete the primary cycle. This reality is particularly likely for disadvantaged children.

    Stunted growth

    Poverty and nutritional deficiencies are among the leading reasons that 162 million children suffer from stunted growth in the developing world, which compromises their physical capabilities and cognitive development.

    Lack of quality care

    Research shows that early nutrition and well-designed parenting programs (e.g. through home visits or community based services) can be very effective in preventing stunting and improving the interaction between caregiver and children especially under the age of 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. 

    Last Updated: Dec 22, 2015

  • ECD features prominently within the World Bank Group’s (WBG) Education Strategy 2020, which sets the goal of Learning for All through three pillars: Invest Early, Invest Smartly, Invest for All. ECD is also a strong component of the WBG’s health and nutrition, and social protection strategies. The WBG is expanding its global ECD knowledge through strong research and impact evaluations.

    Recently, the WBG published a new guide 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. It also launched an eLearning course on strategies to help children get a head start.

    Impact evaluations of early childhood development programs in low- and middle-income countries are already influencing the policy dialogue. Interventions focusing on center-based care (day care or preschools) or early stimulation at home (through parenting group sessions or home visits, sometimes together with nutritional interventions) have shown positive short-term impacts on children’s development in many countries, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Africa, China, Turkey, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Mozambique, among others, as well as significant long-term labor market returns in Jamaica. In several cases, the poorest tend to benefit the most.

    In Indonesia, the WBG’s impact evaluation of an integrated ECD project implemented through the Government showed that children who participated in community-based ECD programs had higher levels of physical well-being and socio-emotional and cognitive competence compared to other children, with the most vulnerable benefiting significantly more.

    In Mozambique, the WBG’s evaluation of a community-based preschool program run by Save the Children 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. The Government of Mozambique is now investing significantly more in young children from disadvantaged families.

    Recently, comprehensive reports on ECD have been published for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, as well as on China.

    Through its Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative, the WBG is expanding global knowledge by bridging research, policy, and practice. To date, more than 35 countries have used SABER tools to assess ECD policies and inform policy dialogue. In Uzbekistan, for example, SABER helped to identify gaps in the equitable provision of Early Childhood Education services, which informed the design of a Global Partnership for Education project to improve access to quality early childhood education opportunities. 

    Last Updated: Dec 22, 2015

  • In response to convincing evidence on the benefits of investing in young children, as well as demand from client countries, the WBG is increasingly supporting ECD around the world. It does so through financing, policy advice, technical support, and partnership activities at the country, regional, and global levels. From 2001 to 2013, the WBG has invested US$3.3 billion in ECD through 33 self-standing ECD operations and 83 ECD components, with a sharp increase in 2012 and 2013.

    Haiti  – About 1.8 million pregnant women, children under 5, and vulnerable families will benefit from increased access and use of maternal and child health, nutrition, and other social services.

    India  – Children under six, particularly 0-3 year old children, pregnant women, and families in select 162 districts will benefit from integrated child development services and improved nutrition outcomes.

    Indonesia – more than half a million children aged 0-6 in poor, hard-to-reach districts received early childhood education between 2007 and 2013.

    Jamaica – An innovative financing approach known as Results-Based Financing has been very effective in the Jamaica Education Transformation Capacity Building Program, resulting in improvements in Grade 4 numeracy and literacy, among other gains. Going forward, Results-Based Financing is also being used to improve school readiness in four-year-olds, through the ECD Program benefiting 300,000 young children.

    Lesotho  – 98,000 newborns and children below 5 years of age and 100,000 pregnant women will benefit from better access to and quality of maternal and newborn health services.

    Mozambique  – 84,000 young children in 600 rural communities benefit from the extension of community-based programs that focus on early attention to cognitive, linguistic, socio-emotional, and physical skills aimed at increasing chances of success in primary school and beyond. 

    Russia  – Children 3-7 years old and their families will benefit from improved access to kindergarten and better quality of early childhood care in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).

    Vietnam – Disadvantaged children 3-5 years old will benefit from a program to raise school readiness, in particular those most vulnerable to not succeeding in a school environment.

    Last Updated: Dec 22, 2015

  • The WBG continues to foster global partnerships to improve children’s development around the world. In August 2015, the World Bank and the Novak Djokovic Foundation launched a new partnership to promote early childhood development, including global advocacy on the importance of investing early in the lives of children as well as investments to help disadvantaged children in Serbia, the tennis star’s home country.

    Previously, the WBG has also partnered with internationally-renowned musical artist Shakira Mebarak’s ALAS Foundation through the Early Childhood Initiative: An Investment for Life, which helped improve the nutrition, health, education, and early stimulation of more than 5 million children and mothers in Latin America.

    Through the Early Learning Partnership (ELP), the WBG is working with foundations, such as the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), to extend their involvement in early learning and ECD. Since 2012, ELP has invested about US$2 million in 14 African countries to stimulate new approaches to early learning, conduct research to find approaches that work, support national planning, and develop and launch new projects for ECD and early learning And additional US$20 million is now available to support similar initiatives at larger scale in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia from 2015 to 2020. 

    Through the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF), an initiative funded by CIFF, DFID, and others, the WBG also supports robust ECD impact evaluations in dozens of countries across the world. This work has significantly contributed to the expansion of knowledge on the impact of various types of ECD interventions in low and middle-income countries, and in several cases (e.g. Mozambique, Indonesia, and Cambodia). The results of these evaluations have helped stimulate policy dialogue and informed the design of new ECD investments.

    Increasingly, projects funded by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), sometimes supervised by the WBG, include an ECD focus. 

    The WBG also engages with the global ECD community, which includes partner organizations such as the UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, the IDB, Global Partnership for Education, the Institute of Medicine, bilateral donor agencies, foundations, and international NGOs, to move the ECD agenda forward. 

    Last Updated: Dec 22, 2015


Sophie Naudeau

Program Leader, Human Development in AFCF1 countries

Amanda Devercelli

Acting Global Lead for Early Childhood Development