Increased Investment in Early Childhood Critical for Development and Inclusion in the Arab World

May 11, 2015


  • Studies show that what happens to children in their earliest years shapes the outcome of their lives.
  • But public investment in early childhood in the Middle East and North Africa region is among the lowest in the world.
  • Increased investment in early childhood development would not only have an enormous impact on children but would address inequality and influence the development trajectory of countries.

While you might think putting money into pre-primary schools and childcare would be the last thing anyone should care about in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) right now, new data suggests it should in fact be a priority. Studies show that what happens to children in their very first years—physically, psychologically, emotionally—shapes the outcome of their lives. It affects whether they thrive at school and go on to find jobs, earn a decent living and, in turn, manage (socially and economically) to bring up their own children. Investing in early childhood pays rich dividends not just for individuals, but for whole societies. Failing to invest in Early Childhood Development (ECD) does the reverse, passing poverty down through generations.

Yet, the MENA region’s public investment in early childhood is among the lowest in the world; in 2011, pre-primary enrollment stood at 27%, half the world rate. About one in every 40 children dies in their first year, often from preventable diseases. Malnutrition stunts the growth of about 18%—almost one fifth—of children, affecting them both cognitively and physically. A child suffering from malnutrition may struggle to learn, putting them at a permanent disadvantage in school and later life.  In 25 years’ time, one-fifth of MENA’s workforce may be less productive than it could have been were more programs in place today for better nutrition in infancy and better childcare.

Until now, data and research on ECD in MENA has also been in short supply. A new report from the World Bank, Expanding Opportunities for the Next Generation: Early Childhood in the Middle East and North Africa sets out to fill this gap. It pulls together research and data from 12 MENA countries and territories, delivering useful insights on the state of early childhood development in the region from a number of dimensions, and providing benchmark figures from the latest available data that governments and organizations can refer to as they map a way ahead.

The prevailing pattern is that many countries fare well in some aspects of early child development while doing poorly in others at the same time. In Lebanon, for example, 95% of mothers receive prenatal care but only 51% of children are fully immunized by the age of 1. Similarly, pre-conflict figures from Libya in 2007 show most births (99%) attended by skilled assistants, but just over half of children (52%) living in households using iodized salt, vital for brain development, and far fewer (9%) having any experience of early education or trained childcare.  

" Children should have equal opportunities for healthy development during their early years, regardless of their circumstances. "

Safaa El-Kogali

World Bank MENA Practice Manager for Education

A child’s social and economic background has a significant impact on whether they have access to the variety of factors that contribute to healthy ECD. The report calculates that a child from the poorest segment of society in Lebanon has a 51% chance of being fully immunized by their first birthday, while a child form the richest segment has a 79%. In Tunisia, a child from the poorest segment of society has a 4% chance of attending early education or childcare, while a child from the richest segment has a 97% chance. Since these inequalities in early childhood underlie many adult inequalities, programs that address these gaps during early childhood can be powerful tools for addressing inequality.  

“Children should have equal opportunities for healthy development during their early years, regardless of their circumstances,” said Safaa El-Kogali, World Bank MENA Practice Manager for Education and lead author of the report, “which is why a focus on early childhood development is so critical.” Public health interventions, such as iodizing salt, can be simple, effective and cheap. They have enormous impact, especially true for disadvantaged children. This is also true of scaling up immunizations and nutrition programs that monitor children and target any who appear at risk of malnutrition. Investments in early care and education also deliver significant returns. “The lives of millions of children can be rapidly improved when countries make ECD a priority, and it can end up influencing the development trajectory of countries,” added El-Kogali.

Algeria is a case in point. As a nation, it stands out as having turned pre-primary enrollment around in under a decade by introducing a pre-primary curriculum in 2004. Before it, only 2% of Algerian children received pre-primary education. By 2011, 75% did, with most pre-schools (86%) provided by the government. Other initiatives include one in Jordan, where a Better Parenting project was introduced targeting disadvantaged families. This focused on teaching parents more about childhood development, the role of the family, positive discipline, and the importance of play. The project sought the help of imams to teach fathers, in particular, about better parenting after Friday prayers.

Normally, ECD indicators change relatively slowly over time, but the ongoing crises and conflicts in MENA may change this. Childhood development programs may be confronted with new challenges, as well as new chances to improve. “Waiting will only make the challenges greater and more costly to reverse,” concluded El-Kogali, “the time to start is now.”