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Why investing in early childhood can benefit a nation

Disadvantaged early environments along with inadequate policies and programmes can sap a nation, leading to high social and economic costs for the country later on. The reverse is also true.

October 15, 2020 5:00:49 pm
early childhoodBirth to age five is the most critical period in anyone's life. (File)

By Rushda Majeed

Policymakers around the world are increasingly acknowledging that early childhood development (ECD) is closely linked to closing the achievement gap, improving national health outcomes, raising incomes, and making the economy stronger. No wonder the world over, investments in our youngest citizens are rising and paying off through greater returns in education, health and productivity.

Birth to age five is the most critical period in anyone’s life. It’s when the brain develops most rapidly. During the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second, building the foundation for cognitive and character skills such as attentiveness, motivation, self-control, and sociability-foundations that serve babies later in life. Neural connections are established throughout life but never to that scale.

While the onus of providing adequate nutrition, opportunities to learn and play, and a safe environment falls primarily on parents, governments can and should invest in the right policies and programmes to support parents and other caregivers-usually grandparents or older siblings-so that they in turn can support their babies better.

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Robust policies and programmes are particularly crucial for the most disadvantaged.

Gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged children open up very early and last all their lives. Disadvantaged families are under pressure at the best of times. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has stalled economies, they are strained to the limit. They have fewer resources and are under extraordinary pressures to meet their daily needs, which means that their children will likely miss out on developmental growth. They will pay the cost for this all their lives.

Read| Early childhood: Emotional and mental health is a concern for toddlers

Disadvantaged early environments along with inadequate policies and programmes can sap a nation, leading to high social and economic costs for the country later on. The reverse is also true.

There is ample evidence that coordinated early childhood programmes for children up to age five can promote higher economic and social returns, help lower a state’s budget for healthcare, education and social programmes, and contribute to a more vibrant society. In Jamaica, for instance, longitudinal studies have shown stunted children who received home visits promoting caregiver-infant play and verbal interaction were five times more likely to stay in school, achieved 0.6 years more of schooling, and were three times more likely to have some college-level education. They also earned 25 percent more income than children who did not participate in the programme.

Holistic ECD programmes also have tremendous long-term health benefits. A growing body of evidence links significant adversity in childhood to increased risk of a range of adult health problems, including diabetes, hypertension, stroke, obesity, and some forms of cancer. For example, having seven or eight serious adverse experiences in childhood translated to three times higher probability of having cardiovascular disease as an adult.

There are economic arguments, too, in favour of investing in the early years. Research by Nobel Laureate James Heckman has shown that high-quality early childhood programmes for disadvantaged children can deliver up to 13 percent return on investment through savings to health, welfare and special education as well as increased income. In cost-benefit terms, every US$1 spent on early childhood development programmes can lead to a return of US$7-10.

Every child needs a good start in life. If all families, including the most disadvantaged, are able to access social and economic resources to best support their child during his or her most critical years, it helps build a strong foundation for not only for the child’s success later on in life, but for the country as a whole.

It therefore makes sense, at several levels, to make ECD a national priority, especially since the short-term costs are more than offset by the long-term benefits. If we are to make all children – our most precious resource – national assets, we must prioritise investing in their earliest years starting now.

(The writer is India Representative, Bernard van Leer Foundation.)

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