Invest in children’s futures; in Early Childhood Development

Investment and Early Childhood Development (ECD) are both about the future. Investment is about transferring today’s purchasing power to the future, with an expectation for positive returns. ECD is about the foundation for individual and societal progress that has an economic and social payback for all.

Both need vision and forward thinking.

However that is where the similarities might end, because globally investment in ECD is extremely limited.

There is compelling and credible evidence that the early years of a child’s life are the foundation for individuals, families, communities and building sustainable societies. Rigorous economic analyses have modelled both the returns on investment and cost of inaction when it comes to early intervention programmes.

ECD programmes can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty by establishing equality in adult earnings. For example, research from Jamaica has shown the power of ECD for highly vulnerable children, who ended up closing the earning gap between themselves and their more advantaged peers. This result was not seen for the vulnerable children who did not receive the ECD intervention.

But despite the voluminous evidence, programmes for young children and families are among the most underfunded.

Government or public funding for ECD, typically comes from two sectors – health and education. In general, in developing countries it is estimated at less than 5% of GDP is allocated to education and on average 2% to health*. Programmes for young children and families receive only a very marginal proportion of health and education spending. While the exact percentages are not calculated, it is estimated that on average 0.5% of this are directed towards children.

The other source of investment in ECD is private sector funding. This source is not homogenous and consists of money and contributions from individuals, households, community members, business and philanthropy. Typically the family and household contribution to ECD is in the form of user fees.

Business investment is both for provision of programmes, e.g., preschools, and more recently social impact bonds for financing social services. Philanthropy is a significant source of funding for ECD. However, this category is quite diverse, with some funders supporting individual projects and others forming part of larger organizational level partnerships, with a joint agenda.

For UNICEF, one such key partner is the H&M Conscious Foundation. Working together with us to encourage an increased financial investment in ECD, the Foundation is supporting 3 countries – Chile, Montenegro and South Africa – to develop strong national investment cases for ECD. These, in turn, will be used to advocate for increased government budget allocations for services for young children. These countries represent geographic and demographic diversity and level of maturity of their ECD programmes, and the final results of this work are anticipated in 2016.

This partnership also has an important role to play in demonstrating the value of partnerships in supporting sustainable programmes, particularly for the post-2015 development agenda. On December 4th the UN Secretary General released his synthesis report The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet. The finance architecture laid out in the synthesis report presents a very different model for financing the SDGs compared to the MDGs. There is a stronger role for private sector with national to support development.

ECD, as presented in the report, is part of the new transformational agenda as a clear strategy for investment in “People.” This offers an opportunity to engage a wider range of investors in ECD.

Investment is a commitment, it is about making choices based on a set of values and the willingness to pay for them. As of now, ECD does not appear to be a priority for public, private or civil society investment, except for a few investors. If we are to increase investment in ECD, we need to make a stronger investment case and highlight noteworthy partnerships that can provide exemplars for supporting programmes, and ultimately, all young children.

Pia Rebello Britto is the Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development ar UNICEF HQ in New York.


*Please note that an earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that in developing countries it is estimated that less than 5% of government budgets are allocated to education and on average 2% to health. Those figures refer to GDP and not governmental budgets.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”


  1. What about supporting families and parents and home life? Why aren’t parents – who love their children the most – mentioned in this report? Systems need to recognise that children need their mothers and fathers to be supported with decent pay, decent housing, fair family taxation and allowances for children. We need to elevate the status of caregiving.

  2. What a compelling article! ECD must be a global priority for us all–parents, educators, community members, businesses and policy makers. Without a comprehensive investment from those who truly have a voice, we will continue to be nothing more than early childhood professionals speaking into the wind. Thank you for outlining the issue so clearly.

    1. Thank you for your comment Val. We’ll continue our work globally to ensure ECD is a priority.

  3. Science confirms that a child’s experience in the first 3 years of life does indeed mould the brain, even altering gene expression. What is so often left out of the debate on early childhood development is the critical importance of consistent, loving care during this period of rapid brain development. Economic poverty is not ideal but what disadvantages children more is emotional poverty. When a child experiences close, responsive sensitive loving care it brings huge benefits not just for the them but for the whole of society.

  4. I run the London Early Years Foundation a childcare social enterprise that has developed a model to allow us to provide nearly 4000 children with high quality care and education everyday. We are continually surprised by the lack of understanding from the pubic, private and civil investors into the well researched area of ECD. We have sourced some social investment but there is much more to do. Its a continual challenge as we try and hit our ambition to provide 5000 children with good quality ECD in areas of poverty. We are always keen to share our model so that we can be part of a collective impact response. Too many children are not receiving the level of ECD that will set them on the same paths as those more blessed with stronger and supportive families. its our duty to ensure as many children as possible get a good start in life and ECD is one way to help this happen.

  5. Very good article and having the backing of a corporation who believes in the same goals and values can make a true change in how education in communities world wide change. Having a large corporation with many varied backgrounds to draw from and put back into the community can help foster how ECD planning and programming can take place. The entire understanding and flow of enmeshing multi-cultures can be realized by drawing on the corporate world. A great place to start and the use the the community to fine tune and tweak.

  6. Marie,
    This concerns me some just on the mere fact of parents who love their children the most do not necessarily do the best for their children. There are some who love their children beyond all reason but don not recognize they are hungry. Love and parenting are two very different things. The can certainly be combined and I do agree that love is usually the basis of most of our decisions. My husband and I both come from long generations of families of mother and father raising the family together. Many families do not have that luxury. We are lucky but very few people or statistics even recognize the fact that there is still a nuclear family anymore. I have been married for 34 years, my children are considered the oddballs of their class.

  7. Definitely agree Jill that love is definitely not enough in isolation. But that isn’t an explanation for articles on early childhood development not mentioning the important role of family and family care. I can’t believe anyone would disagree that families in 2015 really need better conditions in which to thrive so that they in turn can be in a better place to take care of themselves and their families, their children (and other relatives, including the elderly). It’s about caring for the caregivers, and about a fair and equal world, so that caregivers are well placed to provide not just love, but also good nurturing, play opportunities, decent space for rest and play and school work, affordable accommodation, good community spaces, fair family taxation and allowances for parents etc These are all elements to ensure that, as you say, families can give not just love, but all the other things that children need growing up. The impact of ECD programmes outside the family home will be limited unless families themselves are valued, including having family time to nurture relationships which give children an important sense of belonging and security, as well as a place to feel loved and thrive to the full.