by Lesley O’Connell
I love going on field visits. It is by far one of my favorite activities as an IDB sector specialist, because it reminds me of the reality of our countries and what our programs are trying to achieve. One thing that has impressed me from my field visits in Ecuador is that in almost every remote corner I have visited there has been an early childcare center. They are like little flags around the country making visible the long history of government support and investment in Early Childhood Development (ECD).
By nature of their model, these centers are rooted in the community, drawing child care staff from the locale, which has helped them to be sustainable over time. But, many of these centers are in poor rural areas with disperse population, especially challenging social conditions (lack of clean water, lower education and literacy, malnourishment), and geographies, historically limiting their access to technical supervision and support.
Recently, the Ecuadorian government made important efforts to evaluate both the quality of services and their results; the findings were not encouraging, showing lower than expected child development outcomes. As a result, the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion (MIES, for its acronym in Spanish) has led a significant reform of the center based model, introducing new standards, architectural designs, as well as education requirements and training programs for the child care staff. In this transition many of the centers have closed due to their small size and precarious conditions, removing many of these flags of ECD support from the map.
But the story does not end there.
Revealing ECD’s political, budgetary and programmatic priority in Ecuador, the updated National Good Living Plan 2013-2017 (PNBV, for its acronym in Spanish) establishes the goal of universalizing coverage of early childhood development programs for poor children under 5 years of age. The PNBV also mandates that the various ministries consider the local characteristics and needs when developing sectorial policies and programs to ensure the pertinence of the interventions (both territorially and culturally).
To help meet these goals, the Ministry of Coordination of Social Development (MCDS, for its acronym in Spanish) is launching the National Intersectoral Strategy for Early Childhood Development. The strategy promotes comprehensive care for children five and under, through coordinated intersectoral service delivery in health, early childcare/stimulation and education. It also introduces a territorial, intercultural and gender focus approach and promotes: improved access and coverage; improved quality of services; and family and community co-participation and responsibility.
This is a beautiful and complex process in a country with such cultural and topographic diversity as Ecuador. In a recent field visit to a coastal parish in the first microplanning phase, I learned that this small conglomeration of 8 communities represented four different ethnic groups (Afro-Ecuadorians, Chachi, Awá, and Mestizo), that speak three different languages (Spanish, Awá and Chachi), and required fluvial transportation to access services, all of which are programmatic challenges.
The description fits very well a lot of the poorest communities in Ecuador, many of which are rural, disperse and with high concentration of indigenous and afro population. They are the target of current efforts by the government to universalize ECD, and to promote social mobility of the very poor. The challenge is how to do this in a pertinent (and cost effective) way.
The IDB Regional Policy Dialogue dedicated to the Quality in ECD Services, heard similar challenges as voiced by regional representatives. I hope there is opportunity for further debate and collaboration among countries to review innovative solutions, best practices and lessons learned to effectively reach these areas where investment in early child development is sorely needed. Are your authorities talking about how pertinent and cost effective are ECD services?
Lesley D. O’Connell is a Social Protection Senior Specialist based at the IDB’s office in Ecuador.