by Patrick Premand

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Copyright: World Bank/Andrea Borgarello

Policy discussions about early childhood development (ECD) in Latin America often raise the question of how to “go to scale.” In Africa, many policymakers also wonder how to scale-up, although the challenges tend to be even bigger.

After working in Latin America for a few years, my first visit to a Nigerien village in the arid landscape of the Sahel was quite a change of scenery. Niger has alarming demographics and early childhood development outcomes: the fertility rate reaches 7.6 children per woman, more than one-third of children under five years of age are underweight, and 44 percent stunted.

I think programs outside the traditional realm of ECD policy can be a bigger part of the solution to scale-up support to ECD. In recent years, there has been an increase in calls for cross-sectoral approaches to ECD. For the last two years, I have been working on a program in Niger that illustrates how to deliver interventions to improve parenting practices and foster ECD through the social protection system. This is a promising avenue to scale-up ECD interventions. And I think it could be used much more often not only in Africa, but also in Latin America.

In 2011, the government of Niger started implementing a safety nets project supported by the World Bank. A cash transfer program targets women in the poorest households, who receive monthly cash transfers of CFAF 10,000 (approximately US$20) for 24 months. The program also includes accompanying measures aimed at encouraging behavioral changes among parents and fostering early childhood nutrition and development. (The accompanying measures can be seen as an alternative to the conditionalities included in many conditional cash transfer programs in Latin America).

In Niger, the accompanying measures include a range of parenting training activities. The content of the training is based partly on UNICEF’s “Essential Family Practices” modules (focused on health and nutrition) but also goes further  to include child stimulation and socio-emotional development. A monthly village assembly is delivered by NGO workers, who also train community educators to deliver monthly small-group meetings and household visits.

While 80,000 households will receive the cash transfers by 2017, 200,000 households will benefit from the accompanying measures. In total, the program may end up reaching more children than traditional ECD interventions such as pre-schools.

Cross-sectoral approaches to foster ECD have the potential to harness complementarities between Social Protection, Nutrition and Early Childhood Development programs. Evidence from Nicaragua has shown that conditional cash transfer programs including social marketing can lead to improvements in ECD outcomes. There is also growing evidence that parenting interventions can be effective. Such evidence helped us shape the Niger project.

The integration of parenting training or home-visits interventions to foster ECD in Social Protection programs can be a win-win.  Cash transfer programs seek to encourage investments in human capital and reduce the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Linking cash transfers to interventions focusing on early childhood can contribute to that objective. At the same time, the delivery of ECD interventions through cash transfers can provide new scale-up options that directly target the poor.

Latin America has led the way in rolling out cash transfer programs; can it also leverage these programs to scale-up ECD interventions?

Read another story about the Niger program or watch the video

Patrick Premand is a Senior Economist with the Human Development Department of the Africa region at the World Bank. He works on project implementation and impact evaluations in cross-sectoral areas such as early childhood development, productive safety nets or youth employment. Patrick previously worked in the poverty group of the Latin American region at the World Bank. He holds a DPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford.

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