By Raquel Bernal
On February 21, 2011, Colombia launched its national strategy for early childhood care known as “De Cero a Siempre.” The strategy is designed to achieve coverage of high quality services rather than increasing existing coverage, at least in the short term, according to financial data set out in the National Development Plan. The emphasis of this strategy is to achieve truly comprehensive care for boys and girls in Colombia, which includes physical, cognitive and social-emotional development, sanitation and rights.
In the last year, efforts have been focused on design of the strategy, a task charged to the Office of the President’s High Council for Special Programs, through an inter-sectoral committee formed to assist with the process of policy design and implementation. The committee is made up of a variety of institutions, including, but not limited to, the Ministry of Health, Department of National Planning, Colombian Family Welfare Institute (the entity that has been in charge of early childhood services in Colombia), Ministry of Education, Ministry of Culture, and the National Registry.
The strategy consists of a fairly detailed roadmap that could be described as a matrix of services on one axis and children’s age ranges on the other. The services for each age range must guarantee comprehensive care in all of the aforementioned areas of development. Besides establishing better coordination between sectors to ensure that all areas of healthy development are covered by relevant services, the strategy also has a strong emphasis on the quality assurance of these services. For example, the strategy frames a transition from the community homes modality, which currently serves nearly 800,000 children in vulnerable socioeconomic conditions in the country through care in family homes, to a child care center modality for groups of 300 children, with appropriate infrastructure and qualified personnel.
At its core, the design of the strategy is well conceptualized. However, the challenge of translating it into a set of concrete actions is no small feat. For example, the strategy calls for up to 21 different services within the child care package, depending on age ranges that can be as little as three-month intervals. This implies a complex strategy that’s difficult to monitor, and above all, difficult to coordinate among sectors.
In a recent paper [in Spanish], my colleague Adriana Camacho and I recommend a proposal consisting of five dimensions of care with intervals of approximately one year of age and a set of one to three services per dimension, maximum. For example, in the case of cognitive development, we suggest early stimulation and training programs in the home for parents of children under 2.5 to 3 years of age and child care programs in a center for older children.
The success of the strategy depends crucially on effective inter-sectoral cooperation. This is difficult in and of itself, but in this case it has been, in my opinion, even more complex because the committee isn’t led by a ministerial-level institution with a historic mandate in the field of early childhood care. Thus, it lacks the legitimacy and institutional framework necessary for all of the participating institutions to feel the need to be accountable and take an active and efficient role, and it limits the potential for the sustainability of this policy beyond this administration.
Finally, the transformation and modernization of the services currently offered is quite limited by the country’s supply capacity. For example, caring for 1.2 million vulnerable children over the age of 3 in child care centers would require nearly 74,000 professionals with degrees in early childhood education. It’s estimated that, currently, only about 7,500 professionals graduate in fields related to education each year. In addition, there are about 60,000 community mothers without the training necessary to provide comprehensive care, but surely it will be necessary to incorporate, in some legitimate manner, a child care qualification process.
The significant effort that the country has made, in institutional and financial terms, to improve the situation of children during this administration is laudable. The plan is ambitious, which may prove to be a double-edged sword, but it’s definitely full of good intentions. We have yet to see how the transition from design to implementation will play out to confirm whether some of these concerns are relevant or not.
Raquel Bernal is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia), where she also directs the Centro de Estudios de Desarrollo Económico (Center for Economic Development Studies). She is known for her research on issues related to child development. She recently received the prestigious Premio Juan Luis Londoño, an award given in Colombia to recognize the contributions of young economists to social policy issues.