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Early Childhood Development Programs Help Reduce Inequalities in Latin America, Study shows

April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON D.C, April 21, 2009 —A new World Bank report on Early Childhood Development (ECD) provides solid empirical evidence of the impact of such policies and programs on the cyclical effects of poverty and inequality in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

The new report entitled 'The Promise of Early Childhood Development in Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues and Policy Options to Realize It' notes that more than 20 percent of people in the region are poor, and the proportion of poor children in some countries in the region exceeds 40 percent. It adds that ECD programs can help reduce disadvantages individuals will have in life going forward noting that those programs also help societies in many ways.

The new report, released ahead of the World Bank-International Monetary Fund annual spring meetings, notes the coverage of ECD services across Latin America remains low as existing programs cover only a small fraction of potential beneficiary populations, especially amongst the younger children.

Averages, however, mask wide disparities in the percentage of poor children and youth in the region. Countries such as Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay have fewer than 25 percent of children and youth below the age of 18 living below the relative poverty line.Limited access
Access to early childhood development services as well as early childhood indicators vary widely across the region. Children in some countries appear to be receiving adequate ECD services and their ECD indicators are very positive. In other countries, children face greater challenges and their development seems severely compromise.

A relative poverty line is drawn, unlike absolute poverty rates, relative to the typical income/consumption level of a household or individual in a given country. In the context of Latin America region, characterized by increasing inequality, the use of a relative poverty line is important.

Country disparities persist when we observe the distribution of stunted children in Latin America. Countries such as Chile, Jamaica, and Cuba have fewer than five percent of stunted children. Other countries like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Honduras have more than 25 percent. In the extreme is Guatemala, where more than 45 percent of children are stunted.

High poverty rates among children make ECD programs attractive, they are also cost effective

Fighting inequality
Poverty rates among children are high in Latin America. Investing in people, especially in young people, is one of the most cost effective ways of addressing the inequality issues.

This study evaluated a few critical ECD programs in Latin America. A major conclusion from the report is that coverage of ECD programs in Latin America is very low,” says Evangeline Javier, Regional Director for Human Development, World Bank.

In fact, only three countries in the region (Chile, Colombia and Jamaica) have national ECD programs, and these programs are fairly new. It is alarming that ECD programs are viewed as being medium term expenditures as they provide an easy cost effective way for countries to reduce poverty and inequality,” Javier added.

Empirical evidence in the new report demonstrates that intervening early in childhood is economically efficient and produces higher returns than investments made later in life on disadvantaged youth.

“Evidence on ECD programs in the region is scarce but increasing,” says Emiliana Vegas, Senior Education Economist for the World Bank. “While the effectiveness of ECD programs is well known, there is little evidence that shows how specific ECD interventions rank among one another. Therefore further study is necessary", adds Vegas.