In collaboration with Sophie Gardiner

Attention to Early Childhood Development (ECD) programs and policies in Mexico has risen steadily in recent years. The new IDB publication (in Spanish) identifies several developments in the country that are important for ECD:

  1. Preschool education starting at age 3 was made obligatory in 2002.
  2. There was a preschool curriculum reform in 2004.
  3. In 2007, the SEDESOL created the Estancias Infantiles Program, which rapidly became the largest public childcare program targeted to the children of low-income working mothers.
  4. In 2011, Mexico passed a General Law of Provision of Early Attention, Care, and Integral Development Services.
  5. The above mentioned law established a National Council for ECD that has the mandate to unify standards and coordinate efforts across programs and policies.
  6. The Ministry of Health is developing a strategy to provide special support services for the families of children who present signs of developmental delays (recently described in another post).
These are key steps for young children in Mexico. At the same time, the country still faces serious challenges: expanding coverage, pushing the quality agenda, facilitating greater coordination across sectors and levels of government, and equalizing per child financing  across the various services are only some of the tasks in a long to-do list.

The supply of early childhood services is fragmented. Some of it depends on the federal government; other is financed by state and municipalities. And there is also an important portion under private providers. Establishing regulation that ensures homogeneous standards across these services (and monitors them!) is no easy task.

In rural areas, Mexico is home to one of the largest parenting programs in the region: The Programa de Educación Inicial (Early Education Program) run by the Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo CONAFE. This program consists of biweekly 2 hour educational meetings for parents of children 0-4 years of age in rural or marginal urban areas. It serves more than 450,000 children—which is especially impressive considering how diverse their target population is. Still, this program reaches only a small portion of its target population and is not coordinated with any other services from the health or the social development sectors.

The newest program, the Estancias Infantiles, grew quickly and served over 260,000 children in 2011. Up to this point, the program has focused only on care, and did not have a strong pedagogical component. However, an integrated educational curriculum is going to be put into use this year. This is an important action, but important challenges remain in terms of ensuring quality services for children in the Estancias. The Estancias operate through centers operated by private providers that are partially subsidized with public funds (parents also pay a fee). Many recognize that the per-child subsidy is not enough and that the program needs a bigger budget. Moreover, there is great heterogeneity in the size of the per-child financing that different public daycare programs receive. For example, the per-child payment that the children from the Estancias receive is significantly smaller than that received by children who attend another large network of public daycares that depend from the Social Security System (the Instituto Mexicano de Seguriadad Social IMSS). These differences result in heterogeneous quality by design and are most likely to hurt the children from vulnerable households – precisely those who would benefit the most from early childhood development investments!

As everywhere else in the world, Mexico does not have sufficient human resources with proper training to provide care, stimulation, parenting support, breastfeeding services… and many other early childhood development interventions. It is not only a matter of training people in a particular set of competences, but also of retaining them and allowing them to gain experience through proper incentives and fair compensation.

So why is this an important moment in early childhood development in Mexico? If the incoming administration has a strong political will to push for ECD policies, there is a lot that can happen. All of the recent changes in Mexico have the potential of creating interesting synergies for collaboration across the different actors involved. And the country owns a lot of know-how in terms of the successful implementation of complex and yet effective social programs. While there are a lot of good things happening on ECD in Mexico, they are working on isolation. Leadership that promotes integration of efforts and strong political support are some of the missing gears for this machine to start working.

Sophie Gardiner is a senior at Middlebury College studying International Politics and Economics. She was a summer intern at IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division.

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