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The significance of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in building a strong foundation for lifelong learning and for personal, social and economic development is well documented.
In 2010, the first ever World Congress on ECCE held in Moscow reaffirmed the right of all children to ECCE, and underscored it as the basis for “building the wealth of nations” (UNESCO 2010). More recently, in Incheon, the 2015 World Education Forum (UNESCO 2015) recognized ECCE as an inescapable enabler for realizing “equity of education quality and lifelong learning for all”.
A sizeable body of upper-tier research initiatives worldwide has created a knowledge base across all sectors of ECCE, not only benefiting service provision but also supporting advocacy of ECCE investments worldwide.
This literature includes major initiatives that have synthesized research (e.g., IBE, 2015, Lancet, 2017), clarified it for various audiences (e.g., World Bank 2016), and produced important tools for monitoring and evaluation and for developing effective interventions (e.g., UNESCO, 2015).
The ECCE research and development community is vibrant, lively, and making sophisticated advances.

The holistic focus

Yet ECCE practices remain profoundly and unnecessarily inadequate in most countries. In the Moscow Framework for Action on ECCE, UNESCO conceptualizes ECCE as a holistic, integrated and multisector service focusing on health, nutrition, earlystimulation, education, social protection and a supportive environment as means of fostering children’s holistic development. It turns out that such holistic, multisector integration is not merely beneficial, but is essential for effective ECCE. In practice, though, the level of integration ECCE requires is at almost reverse polarity with how organizations furnishing ECCE actually function. The gravitational pull away from coherent, multisector integration and towards fragmentation is intense, complex, and systemic. The reality is that the multisector nature of ECCE does not fit within common organizational categories such as governmental departments with fixed budget lines, institutional boundaries, or traditional bases of support and advocacy. The sophistication and vibrancy of the ECCE research and advocacy communities merit strong admiration, yet more than research and advocacy are needed to overcome this resistance to the holistic service envisioned by the Moscow Framework and virtually all other initiatives that frame ECCE from national or global perspectives.
early childhood care and education country map

Long term benefits

The rewards are significant and compounded. Researchers estimate economic returns equivalent to 10 times their costs, or more (Barnett and Masse 2007); (Engle, Fernald et al. 2011). Economists have made a compelling case that public investments in ECCE are economically justifiable given their “public goods” character. In traditional markets, private individuals are unsuitable investors in ECCE infrastructure or systems, given their limited ability to gain benefits from any investment beyond the individual level; private organizations are similarly unsuited for investing in government services. Outsized societal benefits – benefits otherwise simply unattainable – constitute precisely the basis for government absorbing the investment cost. The benefits of a strong ECCE system accrue to society far beyond any single beneficiary.
Additionally, the return compounds significantly. Those benefiting at the individual level are equipped to play a greater role in passing the benefits on to others and successive generations. As a result of these accumulating societal advantages, ECCE is among the most compelling developmental strategies (Barnett and Nores 2015).
Although much of this research originated in North America (Camilli et al., 2010) and Europe (Vandenbroeck 2012, Van Lancker 2013, Legrand, Grover et al. 2015) subsequent research in Africa (Sall 2015, Serpell and Nsamenang 2015), Asia (Rao and Sun 2015), Latin America (Vegas and Santibáñez 2009) and other contexts has confirmed that ECCE has compelling economic and social payoffs in the range of economically advantaged and disadvantaged economies alike and across regional and cultural landscapes (Burger 2010) (Vargas-Barón 2009, Vegas and Santibáñez 2009, Nores and Barnett 2010, Engle, Fernald et al. 2011). Meta-analyses by Camilli et al. (Camilli, Vargas et al. 2010) and (Nores and Barnett 2010) of child development programs in high, middle, and low income countries indicate ECCE benefits across a wide range of political, socio-cultural, and economic contexts (Baker-Henningham and López Bóo 2010).

Short-term and immediate benefits

There is an impressive body of evidence coming to light, including formal cost-benefit studies, that confirm not only the long term benefits of ECCE but also short term ones (Camilli et al., 2010; Nores and Barnett, 2010; Engle et al., 2011). Some of these benefits are clear. Reliable childcare enables women to join the workforce in larger numbers (Barnett and Nores, 2015). But some of them are more subtle—proper nutrition, a life free of violence, and early cognitive stimulation can lead children to become better adjusted adults who are healthier mentally and physically, cost society less in terms of anti-social behavior, and contribute more (Engle et al., 2011, Nores and Barnett, 2010). Other benefits of ECCE include areas of cost savings within public education—kids require fewer special learning accommodations, repeat fewer grades, have greater cognitive achievement, and become more willing to take charge of their education as they grow older (Camilli et al., 2010). The high cost of chronically mentally ill and physically ill individuals to the healthcare system and the criminal justice system is lessened (Economic Opportunity Institute, 2018). In healthcare systems, often a small segment of beneficiaries originates a disproportionately large share of the costs. Healthier, well-adjusted children become healthier adults and require fewer health and social services along the way. Thus, since more people are able to enter the workforce, economic inequality declines and tax revenues are enhanced (Heckman 2008).


Beyond programmatic challenges, current inadequate institutional, legal, policy, and financing frameworks that are not mutually informed or supported by a system of data collection and evaluation characterize the infrastructure of ECCE. Most countries do not have formal ECCE systems nor do most countries conceive of what they have as “ECCE.” Instead, they carry out uncoordinated and unevenly developed individual elements of education, healthcare, and other forms of protection and services for children. ECCE is at best a fragmented enterprise in most countries when it is operationally crucial to be the opposite. The level of neglect varies across regions, starting with sheer lack of access to ECCE, predominantly in developing regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, South, and West Asia and the Arab states. The quality and equity of access to ECCE remain a global challenge. The neglect is even deeper for children of ages 0 to 3 years, which is the most critical age range with the highest returns to investment in ECCE. This prevailing context risks the attainment of ECCE target 4.2 of SDG4, which states that:

“By 2030, countries should ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”

Critical issues

In fact, fragmentation and inadequate ECCE infrastructure risk negating or diminishing the impact of virtually all other development efforts, especially for countries and individuals who need them most. Furthermore, ironically, external agencies that promote and support ECCE initiatives have tended to adopt a non-systemic and piecemeal project approach that has consistently failed to be sustainable systemically or after external project support has ceased.
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