Early childhood programs used to be places where young children took naps and adults paid little attention. Now the years from zero to five get new focus as researchers understand more about how people’s brains are shaped at an early age, what that means over the course of their lifetimes, and for entire populations.

The shift was clear in a recent high-level special session at the World Bank in Washington, DC. Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank’s president, shared the stage with a handful of top economic ministers from key countries as he emphasized the larger costs and benefits to society, and the high stakes involved.

The Issue of Our Time

At the session, “Investing in the Early Years,” the finance ministers and one prime minister explored the social and economic implications when children get a healthy start in life – and when they don’t. Globally, only half of all children aged 3-6 years have access to pre-primary education. That statistic, Kim said, is “a recipe for instability.”

For Kim, early child investment is the issue of our time and the basis for creating equal opportunity. A national leader, he said, “can’t walk into the future with 20, 30 percent stunting and expect to compete.” We can’t move forward into a future with a younger generation that has “inequality locked into their brains.”

An Opportunity for Growth

On the flip side of that coin, countries face a potential windfall if they meet the challenge of giving all children a good early start. In developing countries where all children gain basic skills, gross domestic product (GDP) can increase thirteen fold – 1,300 percent.

Recent research shows how the neuronal connections that form in a child’s first thousand days are the “core of human capital,” in Kim’s words. During that period children require nutrition and stimulation – and stability.

“We know what makes a difference,” he said. The investments required are small, yet they have an outsized impact, with rates of return up to 24 percent. “It is a no-brainer to make these investments,” said Kim.

To maintain the focus on the potential benefits and the cost, the World Bank launched an exhibition at its Washington headquarters titled “The Early Years: Investing in Our World’s Future.” The exhibition, launched in November, runs continuously.

Three Ministers, Three Examples from the Aga Khan Development Network

At the Bank’s fall meeting, the government ministers headlined the awareness of the economic importance. In a number of those highlighted countries, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has been a partner in their commitment to early childhood. Cote d’Ivoire’s prime minister, Daniel Kablan Duncan, outlined his country’s target for improving health coverage for children along with better education, funded with a combination of public and private spending. AKDN has supported parenting programs in Cote d’Ivoire through the social development programs of the Filtisac company.

Tanzania’s finance minister, Philip Mpango, acknowledged his country’s past failure to invest adequately in the early years. Mpango noted that the cost of that failure was paid across society, even by the more prosperous segments. Now Tanzania has committed $115 million to a multi-sector nutrition action plan and scaling up education.

Tanzania: Evidence Shows Preschool Program’s Value

In Tanzania the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme (MECP), with the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), has developed a preschool model that allows communities to establish and manage high-quality, sustainable preschools for their children. Studies show that children graduating from MECP-supported community preschools outperform children graduating from other preschools.

Recognizing MECP’s record after a quarter-century of holistic child development, the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training in Zanzibar entered into a Public Private Partnership with MECP to support 400 more preschools and improve access and quality of pre-primary education.

Across Tanzania, AKF and MECP has supported the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology and the Tanzanian Institute of Education (TIE) to develop a competency-based pre-primary curriculum and professional development courses for pre-primary teachers. Over the last two years, AKF and MECP have also partnered with TIE and the Education Quality Improvement Programme – Tanzania to develop and implement a school readiness program. This is a 12-week process aimed at supporting boys and girls who have never been to preschool to prepare for first grade. Due to the program’s success in 2015, it was expanded in 2016. School readiness programs are now in 3,000 communities across seven regions of Tanzania.

Minister Mpango said that all countries’ finance ministers should commit to an investment in early childhood.

Uganda: A Winning Teacher Demonstrates How

In Uganda, another country featured at the World Bank event in the fall, teachers are a key part of the promise to early education. Ruba Moses Gift is a young primary-school teacher in Uganda’s northwest corner. In the Koboko District, Mr. Gift has demonstrated the dedication and innovation that, along with engaged parents and caregivers, transforms young children into vital and thriving adults. Nominated for the Global Teacher Prize, Gift’s story is the heart of a video on participatory learning, which you can watch here.

Another Aga Khan Foundation program in East Africa that addresses early learning in a very different setting is a partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation called the Building Brighter Futures Babycare consortium. The partnership in Kenya aims to provide high-quality childcare suited for four under-served urban communities in Nairobi: Baba Dogo, Kibera, Kangemi and Kawangware. Looking at the needs of children in those areas, the project produced a policy brief, “Building a Brighter Future for Vulnerable Children,” which is available here.

Keeping Early Childhood in Focus

At the World Bank event the CEO of UNICEF, Tony Lake, reinforced the high stakes of investing in early childhood by citing new research from the special issue of Lancet. The fact that 43 percent of children under age 5 are at risk of not achieving their cognitive potential, he added, is a crisis. Along with the missed opportunity of not fulfilling this cognitive capacity comes a tremendous potential loss of people’s productivity, and soaring health costs that society will bear. If children don’t receive the early stimulation they need, Lake concluded, we’re at risk of “failing our future.”

“You manage what you measure,” Kim said. So at the event last fall, he declared a commitment that the World Economic Forum meetings at Davos this month, January 18-20, include measures of early childhood indicators and investment to keep the issue on the front burner.

What better way to signal that this year we’ll keep a focus on investing in early childhood?

Photo: Jim Yong Kim speaks at The Early Years: Investing in Our World’s Future launch at the World Bank.