Investing in the early years is one of the smartest things a country can do to eliminate extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity, and create the human capital needed for economies to diversify and grow. Early childhood experiences have a profound impact on brain development—affecting learning, health, behavior and ultimately, income. An increasingly digital economy places even greater premiums on the ability to reason, continually learn, effectively communicate and collaborate. Those who lack these skills will be left further behind.
Yet today, millions of young children are not reaching their full potential because inadequate nutrition, a lack of early stimulation, learning, and nurturing care, and exposure to stress adversely affect their development.
The challenge is daunting:
- In low and middle income countries across the world, 250 million children under the age of five are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential because of poverty and stunting (or low height for age).
- In Africa alone, one third of children are stunted.
- Worldwide, only half of all three to six-year-olds have access to pre-primary education. In low income countries, just one in five children has access to preschool.
- One in 200 children in the world is displaced, exposing them to the kind of stress that can undermine their development.
- Investments in young children are minimal: in Sub-Saharan Africa just 2 percent of the education budget goes to pre-primary education, while in Latin America government spending on children under 5 is a third of that for children 6 to 11.
Smart investments in the physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional development of young children —from before birth until they transition to primary school— are critical to put them on the path to greater prosperity, and to help countries be more productive and compete more successfully in a rapidly changing global economy.
There is a growing body of evidence about what programs work: early childhood nutrition, early stimulation and learning programs to extend school completion, all improve learning outcomes, and ultimately increase adult wages. Some of the evidence includes:
- A 20-year study of children in Jamaica by Nobel laureate James Heckman, Paul Gertler and others showed that early stimulation interventions for infants and toddlers increased their future earnings by 25 percent—equivalent to adults who grew up in wealthier households.
- A World Bank Group (WBG) analysis of the long-term benefits of early childhood education in 12 countries found that children who attend preschool stay in school for nearly a year longer, on average, and are more likely to be employed in high-skilled jobs.
- Children in a long-term study in Guatemala who were not stunted were much more likely to escape poverty as adults, and earned incomes 5 to 50 percent higher than children who were stunted as children.
- Evidence that an additional dollar invested in quality early childhood programs yields a return of between $6 dollars and $17 dollars.