Early Years: The Foundation for Human Capital


Newborn in Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: World Bank


Developing an individual’s potential – and a country’s human capital – depends on giving children the best possible start in life. The first five years of life are the fastest period of human growth and development as 90 percent of a person’s brain development occurs by the age of five. Investing in the early years helps to break the cycle of poverty, address inequality, and boost productivity.

Despite the central importance of the early years, children today face a human capital crisis. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index estimates that globally, a child born today would only reach 56% of their full adult productivity due to the risks of poor health and education. As a result, millions of children do not reach their full development potential because of inadequate nutrition, lack of early stimulation and learning, and exposure to poverty and stress. COVID-19 is expected to further exacerbate these challenges due to impacts on critical maternal and child health services including timely immunizations, increased poverty leading to reduced nutrition, and higher rates of violence against women and girls.

  • In 2020, stunting affected an estimated 22 percent or 149.2 million children under 5 globally. Stunting early in a child’s life can cause irreversible damage to cognitive development and has educational, income, and productivity consequences that reach far into adulthood. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 6.7 million children are estimated to face acute malnutrition as measured by wasting and stunting is also expected to increase.
  • More than 40 percent of all children below primary-school age – or nearly 350 million children – do not have access to childcare. As a result, too many children spend their earliest years in unsafe and unstimulating environments. This early adversity leads to disadvantages in human growth and development that widen over time.
  • Yet we know that early interventions can help children overcome disparities and increase adult wages later in life. In Jamaica, young children who suffered from stunting but received high-quality early stimulation support earned 25 percent higher wages as adults, allowing them to ‘catch up’ to their non-stunted peers.

To address these shortcomings, the World Bank takes a multi-sectoral approach to support country investments during the early years. The World Bank’s Investing in the Early Years (IEY) Framework (below) highlights the need for investments in children across three pillars to ensure they reach their full potential: (1) children are healthy and well nourished, especially in the first 1,000 days; (2) children receive early stimulation and learning opportunities; and (3) children are nurtured and protected from poverty and stress. While these three areas of intervention are proven to have substantial impact on lifelong human capital formation, such efforts also require coordinated support and access to quality services across sectors to drive positive outcomes.

While the World Bank supports a wide range of projects that focus on the early years, the following examples reflect multisectoral approaches that integrate more than one pillar of the IEY Framework.

Senegal: The Investing in the Early Years for Human Development project improves delivery of services that promote early childhood development in underserved areas including child nutrition and early stimulation in the first 1,000 days, quality early learning, and child protection.

Indonesia: The Investing in Nutrition and Early Years project in Indonesia aims to increase convergence across sectors and utilization of nutrition services and interventions during the first 1,000 days to tackle the high stunting prevalence in priority districts.

Brazil: The Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program encourages families to invest in the health and education of young children to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and has been scaled up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is complemented by Crianza Feliz activities that improve parenting practices and support early stimulation activities.


  • Early childhood development. Early childhood experiences have a profound impact on brain development – affecting learning, health and lifetime opportunities and wellbeing.
  • Nutrition. Malnutrition is one of the world’s most serious but least-addressed development challenges with enormous human and economic costs borne by the poor, women, and children.
  • Reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health. While substantial progress has been made, maternal mortality remains a lifetime risk for poor and vulnerable women and child mortality is unacceptably high.
  • Social safety nets. In low-income countries, around one in five of the world’s poor lack safety net coverage, which has a disproportionate impact on the wellbeing of families with young children.
  • Gender. Early childhood and gender are inextricably linked. No country, community or economy can achieve its potential without full and equal participation of women and men, girls, and boys.
  • Childcare. Quality childcare is critical to children, women, families, businesses, and economies. However, nearly 350 million children do not have access to the childcare they need.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for families with children and required a shift in approaches to ensure children’s needs continue to be met. Ensuring continued investment in the early years both during and after the pandemic will be necessary to support a resilient and equitable recovery.

Investing in the early years during COVID-19 specific risks that children face. |  15 Ways to Support Young Children and Their Families in the COVID-19 Response

Evidence Base

The evidence is clear: interventions focused on the early years can have an outsized impact on child health and development and family wellbeing. Young children who receive appropriate nutrition, health care and emotional and cognitive stimulation are better prepared for school and learning and become healthier and more productive adults – and in many cases, parents themselves. The Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF) is one of the leading evaluation groups driving the creation of relevant evidence related to early childhood development. SIEF-supported researchers are working to find the best and most cost-effective ways to deliver a range of early childhood nutrition, health, and development programs in low-income countries. SIEF also provides information and resources on how to measure early childhood outcomes, including the Toolkit for Measuring Early Childhood Development in Low and Middle-Income Countries which provides a practical, “how-to” guide for selection and adaptation of child development measurements for use in low- and middle-income countries. 

Programs such as Cuna Mas in Peru – incorporating home visits to support mothers and children are shown to have multi-faceted positive effects on child development. Each dollar invested is estimated to result in 5-fold returns. Further research has also been recently conducted on maintaining efficacy of home visiting models as they scale up – from ‘proof of concept’ in Jamaica, to a pilot in Colombia, to the at-scale program in Peru – with 70, 700, and 70,000 beneficiaries respectively.

The Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER)-ECD |  The Measuring Early Learning and Outcomes (MELQO) |  Atlas of Social Protection Indicators of Resilience and Equity |  Optima Nutrition |  Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates |  Toolkit for Measuring Child Care Quality |  Measuring Child Development and Early Learning |  Measuring the Quality of Early Learning


Strategic partnerships bring together an array of actors working to improve the lives of children worldwide. The World Bank is active in several partnerships and initiatives focused on the early years that facilitate investment, support operations and evaluation, and provide technical expertise. Key partnerships include:

Nurturing Care for Early Childhood Development  |  The Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN) |  The Global Financing Facility |  The Power of Nutrition |  The Early Learning Partnership (ELP)  |  The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) |  Scaling Up Nutrition |  The Japan Trust Fund