It was very special for me to return to Tanzania last week and participate in the 2nd International Conference on Early Childhood Development (ECD) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Hosted by the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Human Development, in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation, the ECD conference brought together researchers, leaders, policymakers, educators and other professionals to work towards improving the quality of life for all children.

The research is increasingly clear: a child’s earliest years can have a lifelong impact on their quality of life. When you multiply that for all children, those early years also have a tremendous influence on society.

What struck me at the conference was that we are at an important moment for this work. The time has come for ECD to accelerate with broad support across the developing world, through donors, and local communities themselves.

The question for me is how we take successful models to scale while we have the full attention of financiers, policymakers, and service providers. I have learned that what works is not automatically what gets taken to scale by a development industry always searching for the next big thing. Small but effective innovations can get overlooked. It’s also critical to be aware that models need to be adapted from one context to another.

Here are the top five lessons I took away from the conference:

ECD doesn’t work by investing in a series of vertical interventions like health, nutrition and education alone. The trick is to combine interventions that work powerfully together. Attending to nutrition, early stimulation, social protection, responsive caregiving, water and sanitation together yields the greatest dividends.

It’s just as important to focus on the wellbeing of the mother, father and other caregivers. They can’t care for their child if their own capacity is compromised. Strong communities and families are an essential piece to ensuring children will thrive.

Getting successful models to scale is more likely to work on the back of existing programs targeting women and children. An overemphasis on health, however, can undermine the importance of an integrated approach.

Creating the right incentives for government agencies, employers, and educators to adopt family-first policies make a big difference in enabling parents to make choices that put their families and children first.

While the evidence that ECD works is growing, longitudinal studies are still scarce. For ECD to have lasting power as an intervention, it needs to be unambiguous that investing in the early years contributes to lifelong development, prosperity and economic development.

As a non-expert, I was certainly moved by what I heard and what I saw. There is no doubt in my mind that investments before birth and into the early years pay huge dividends for a child, her family and her country. What’s remarkable is that the investment is multi-generational. What we invest or fail to invest today affects neurological development for more than one generation. Let’s embrace the opportunity.

By Aleem Walji, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A.

Learn more about our work in early childhood development