Early Childhood Development: An essential building block
How much do you remember (really remember) your early years? And how important do you think those years were in preparing you for the rest of your life? Not sure? Well, evidence reveals that the pre-school years actually have a great impact on the rest of a person’s life and that it is the best, and most cost–effective time to invest in life. So, then why don’t we see or hear more of just that – development agencies, governments, civil society – investing in building this foundation?
Early Childhood Development services are generally defined as: prenatal care, education for parents and childcare providers (eg. positive effects of early stimulation and exposure to books), early education for children, teacher training, and health and nutrition programs.
The evidence. One of the best-known studies – the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study – on the positive outcomes and cost effectiveness of investing in Early Childhood Development (ECD) shows that 40 year olds who attended pre-school were:
Despite the evidence, the Middle East and North Africa region is one of the lowest providers of early childhood education. In 2009, only 21% of 4 and 5 year olds attended pre-school in the region, ranging from only 3% in Djibouti and 10% in Syria to 75% and 79% in Algeria and Lebanon, respectively.  Access is only one problem –quality and coordination of programs are often others. Given that ECD services come from a variety of sectors, (health, education, social protection, social development sectors), services are often uncoordinated and of poor quality. Even among the oil-rich countries that have invested heavily in preschool education, students’ educational performance ranks low internationally.
The low level of ECD investment comes from a lack of understanding of the importance of the early years in setting a foundation for further development later in life. Many policymakers fail to recognize the significance of ECD –not onlyfor the well-being of the child, but for the well-being of society more broadly. Yes, there are many challenges as the region positions itself globally in the 21st century to compete in wins – and investment in ECD is not a political quick world markets and to build human capital for knowledge societies. And it’s no secret that politicians want quick win. But we cannot afford to take ECD off the table.
Research shows that investments in ECD are cost effective and have high economic returns. The earlier the investment, the better, as the 2007 Heckman study shows (graph). Ages 0–3 are when language and sensory development are most critical. ECD positively affects learning ability (IQ) and school performance, individual earnings, labor market productivity and can reduce the rate of criminal activity by young adults.
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Coverage and quality of ECD services vary greatly across the region. Most ECD services in MENA are provided by the private sector with little regulation, so access to ECD services is often limited to families who can pay for them. Significant inequities are exacerbated by poverty, strife and conflict. Inequities within countries result in poorer outcomes of human development for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Comprehensive ECD data is limited because the data sources are numerous, making ECD difficult to monitor and evaluate holistically.
Awareness of the importance of ECD needs to be raised in the region and efforts to scale up what works need to be strengthened. But how? A variety of strategies have been employed around the world, many focusing on one or more of the following:
The World Bank has supported ECD initiatives in several countries in MENA. In Egypt, the World Bank studied strategic options for investment in ECD and provided a $20 million loan to the Egyptian government to increase access and improve the quality of learning in kindergartens for 4 and 5 year olds. Last year, the World Bank lent over $15 million to Lebanon to help provide more and better pre-school services to children in disadvantaged areas of the country. We are preparing to do more, drawing on the experiences of ECD expansion in other areas of the world.
Outside of a school in Djibouti
Attention to ECD in the region seems to come in spurts. The current intense concerns about skills and employment should not divert attention from the critical need for better ECD coverage and quality. Let’s focus on “growing” the entrepreneurs of the future – from the bottom up – so more young people can become the job creators, not just the job seekers. The evidence is there, where are the actions?
 UNESCO Institute for Statistics in EdStats, 2009