By Santiago Levy
In recent years, many countries in the region have prioritized early childhood care on their public policy agendas.
This is due not only to evidence of the high returns on investment in child development but also to the fact that skills built early in life produce greater benefits from later learning opportunities. For more information on this topic, we recommend reviewing the available evidence for the Southern Cone, which demonstrates that the benefits of attending preschool are up to 19 times greater than its cost. These findings are confirmed, for example, by higher dropout rates among children living in disadvantaged homes during early childhood. In addition, exposure to unfavorable environments during the first years of life is associated with negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including an increase in antisocial behaviors and greater health problems.
To meet the growing demand for child care services for young children, several countries have invested in expanding their coverage. However, in many cases, emphasis has been placed on facilitating women’s access to the workforce, and less attention has been paid to the need to ensure quality services that promote comprehensive child development. In several countries, the expansion of coverage has been achieved by sub-contracting with third parties for service delivery. However, this process has not been accompanied by the corresponding definition of quality standards and compliance monitoring among providers.
Scant evidence about the quality of existing services suggests that it is heterogeneous and, in many cases, at dangerous levels. Low coverage and poor quality go hand in hand with the sector’s meager budgets. Despite expansion efforts, coverage rates for key child development services remain very low. In addition, the various programs and initiatives have emerged independently of each other, without being formulated as part of a national policy on child development and without being linked to the rest of the social services geared toward the care of small children and their families.
One critical issue is that most of the staff in charge of caring for young children at child care centers are not professionals, nor do they possess the minimum skills necessary to perform the job. Even among those with professional degrees, there’s a great deal of variation in the quality of instruction and the type of training received. Most countries have made little progress in human resource accreditation. Similarly, in several child care settings, staff members receive no compensation for their work (staff works on a volunteer basis) or the wages are very low.
The IDB’s social strategy, presented in 2011, identifies child development as a priority. The following two objectives were proposed:
- For children ages 0 to 3: Identify policies and interventions that support parents and caregivers in improving the quality of care, ensuring access to comprehensive child development services for vulnerable populations, and identifying effective, quality modalities of service, with low drop-out rates and sustainability in the long term.
- For children ages 4 to 6: Expand access to preschool services, taking into account issues of quality and equity, and strengthen initiatives that coordinate preschool education with the primary education cycle.
In addition, the IDB Strategy on Social Policy seeks to support countries in the tasks of reviewing and reforming the processes of selection, certification, and training of staff employed at early childhood care services.
The IDB has been an important partner of the main child development programs and policies in the region, and through funding or technical assistance, we’re currently supporting major reform processes in several countries. The following countries stand out among those we’re working with on this issue: Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. They all have one common focus—providing high-quality services—that we’ll not hesitate to continue supporting.
Santiago Levy Algazi is the Vice President for Sector and Knowledge of the Inter-American Development Bank.