In recent years, several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have very clearly expressed, through their democratic processes, a political preference for equity. It is quite interesting to note that, along with hopes for increased economic growth, countries such as Peru and Chile are looking to reform their policies in favor of social inclusion. With that said, what tools do public policymakers have at their disposal when their mandate is to improve equity?

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Traditionally, governments in the region have pursued redistributive policies through reforms to land tenure arrangements, tax reforms, or income transfers targeted at the poor. However, evidence from recent years tells us that there’s another instrument of public policy that promotes equity: investment in early childhood development. By providing equal opportunities early in life (or closing the gap between the rich and the poor), these investments have the potential not only to create citizens with more human capital but also to lay the foundation for a more equitable society. In other words, this is a public policy that builds productivity as well as equity.

A recent study published by the IDB, Wealth Gradients in Early Childhood Cognitive Development in Five Latin American Countries, documents why the task of investing in human capital must be started very early in life. The reason lies in the fact that gaps in early childhood development also become evident during the first few years of life.

The study compares the cognitive development of children under 6 in five countries in the region: Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Nicaragua. For this purpose, researchers analyzed the results of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), a test of receptive vocabulary (i.e., it evaluates the words that children can understand as opposed to those they can produce). This test was administered to representative samples of the population of these countries. The results were not very encouraging:

–          Big differences are found in the vocabulary levels of children within the same country and as compared with other countries. For example, Chilean children in urban and rural areas have a higher vocabulary level than children in the other countries. At the same time, there’s a significant disparity among the vocabulary level of children in urban and rural areas in Colombia and Peru.

–          Socioeconomic gradients exist. A child in the poorest quartile of Ecuador, Nicaragua or Peru at age 6 has the vocabulary level of a 4-year-old. In other words, the poorest children are significantly worse off than those with greater economic resources. This means that they start school at a significant disadvantage.

–          The school system does not help to close gaps in vocabulary. Data exists for three of the countries studied, allowing these children to be tracked over time, and unfortunately, it confirms that these differences remain after children start school.

This study is important because it constitutes the first systematic effort to document, in a comparable manner, gaps in vocabulary development within and between countries. This type of evidence is useful for changing public policy and achieving the necessary budget commitment, thus breaking out of a historical pattern of low investment in early childhood development that has characterized our region.

Still, this is merely a first step because, unfortunately, there are only a few cases in which systematic measurements of vocabulary development and other dimensions of child development are collected in order to monitor how they change over time. This monitoring can be performed using other social indicators, such as the quality of education and child nutrition, and each time updated data is published, it prompts public debate on the importance of investing in these areas.

Several governments in the region, from across the political spectrum, have placed early childhood development on the public agenda. It’s no wonder that there’s an increasing demand for data on child development indicators. This will allow for greater government accountability and the ability to respond to the question, are we effectively closing gaps and building more equitable societies with more productive citizens? What do you think?

Maria Caridad Araujo is a lead economist in the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank. Her work at the IDB has focused on early childhood development and poverty alleviation issues. Follow her in Twitter @caridadaraujo

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