By Norbert Schady. 

A conference on “Investing in early Childhood: A Global Perspective on the Interplay between Family and Interventions” was held at the University of Chicago on April 20 and 21. The conference brought together speakers from a variety of disciplines (economists, philosophers, child development specialists, neurologists, among others). Some presentations focused on the experience from the United States, others on developing countries (including, in Latin America and the Caribbean, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Ecuador).

Although the topics discussed at the conference ranged widely, three seemed particularly important. First, there is consensus that the remediation of early deficits once children enter adulthood can be costly. But is earlier always better? A number of presenters stressed that, in both developed and developing countries, many at-scale interventions for very young children (children under the age of two) have had disappointing results. Should a greater emphasis be placed on somewhat older children, perhaps children ages 3-5? Second, to what extent can high-quality public interventions compensate for deficient family environments? And third, how do interventions provided at different stages in the life cycle (including those provided at different points in early childhood) interact with one another?

I made a presentation entitled “ECD in Latin America and the Caribbean: The evidence”. The presentation stressed a number of salient features of the region. First, many countries (especially some in Central America and in the Andean region) have high levels of chronic malnutrition (low height for age among children). Second, while data are only available for a handful of countries, there is evidence that there are large deficits and steep socioeconomic gradients in cognitive and language development in early childhood. In Ecuador, for example, the poorest children in rural areas are more than a year delayed by the time they enter school. Third, the quality of center-based care (“daycare”) that is provided to very young children often seems to be very low.

My presentation then reviewed the evidence on the impacts of a variety of policies on outcomes in early childhood. In Jamaica and more recently Colombia, programs of home visits that seek to improve early stimulation and the home environment have improved child cognitive development, and in Jamaica these effects have been sustained for more than two decades. In Guatemala, an intervention that provided a nutritional supplement to young children also had long-lasting effects. In Argentina and Uruguay, preschool for 4-5 year-old children improved their subsequent test performance and the years of schooling they attained. On the other hand, the results of credible evaluations of center-based care for very young children in the region generally do not find positive effects on child development (although these programs facilitate the insertion of women into the labor force). Finally, cash transfer programs like those implemented in many countries (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico, among others) can have modest effects on child development, but only when they change the behaviors of parents and other caregivers in the home.

Norbert Schady is Sector Economic Advisor for the Social Sector at the Inter-American Development Bank. He has published widely on early childhood in Latin America.

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