A new way to measure government investment in early childhood

It is often said that the real commitment of a government to any issue can be measured by the money it spends. But measuring government investment is not always easy, especially when it is an issue as complex as early childhood development.

Over the past decades in Latin America, early childhood has received increased government attention. Vast evidence from many disciplines (including neuroscience, psychology, medicine and economics) signals the importance of investing in early childhood development and the high cost to both children and society if it is ignored.

Recognizing the importance of investing in young children has led to a proliferation of related public polices and government programs. Yet, these efforts have not always been accompanied by the necessary corresponding investment, a fact that hinders the coverage, quality and sustainability of ECD programmes.

To map more precisely the extent to which this age group is prioritized (or not) in government spending, UNICEF in Latin America and the Caribbean, together with the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) of UNESCO and the Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI), recently collaborated to develop and implement a methodology to measure public spending in early childhood in nine countries in the region.

LAC countries

The first challenge of measurement was to agree on a definition of “early childhood.” Not all countries define early childhood in the same way. Ages for this category in the countries included in this study range from 0-5 to 0-8, including the gestational period. The study kept the particular definition of each country, a detail to keep in mind when comparing data collected between countries.

Various types of spending that benefit children in early childhood and were taken into account in the methodology. Specific spending on early childhood (e.g. daycare centers), spending on children not specific to early childhood (e.g. campaigns against violence), spending that impacts the entire population including early childhood (e.g. upkeep of public spaces), indirect spending (e.g. food voucher programs for families), etc. This new methodology measures the levels of 5 categories of spending.

There are also various categories of programs and services needed to support early childhood development. To help measure public investment in this population, 10 categories of expenditure were defined including direct assistance (e.g. cash transfers), care and education, food and nutrition, health and others.

Once central challenges were overcome, the new method was applied for the first time in nine countries in Latin America and produced a novel photograph of figures on economic investment in early childhood. The results show spending on policies aimed at early childhood development fall between 2.1 and 9.1% of total public expenditure in each country. The percentage that this spending represents, with regard to overall social spending (GPS), for each country ranges from 3.1 to 14.1%.

Honduras and Peru invest 1.6% of GDP in public policies for ECD, and at the lower end of the spectrum Mexico and Colombia invest 0.8% and 0.5% of their GDP in this population. The countries that invest the greatest percentage of their public spending in early childhood are Honduras, Costa Rica and Paraguay, at a rate of four times that of some other countries. Investment is per capita, adjusted by purchasing power parity, ranges from 299.8 USD/annually in Guatemala to 2,295 USD/annually in Argentina.

Developing such a multi-country measurement, with collected disaggregated “baseline” data on this type of investment, means many obstacles have been overcome to achieve significant progress.

However, further steps must still be taken to ensure more precise measurement of the governments’ financial commitment, and certify commitment to this issue is increasingly significant and sustainable. Some of the remaining challenges in this regard include:

  • A need to enact more concrete universal standards on the level of economic investment required of governments for early childhood and in the various possible categories of this investment — taking into account different national and local contexts, as well as the effectiveness of interventions based on evidence and the level of progress a country has already made.
  • An equity analysis must be integrated to monitor the investment’s population priorities: Is it directed, in the necessary proportions, to vulnerable and excluded children? In other words, investments should give greater consideration to those who suffer greater deprivations of their rights.
  • Measuring economic investments in early childhood, and children in general, is the responsibility of States and should be assumed by them as such. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, in Article 4, discusses the obligation of States to provide, to their “maximum” capacity, resources to make the economic, social and cultural rights of children a reality. This responsibility necessarily entails that allocation of resources is monitored (by governments) to ensure compliance.
  • Broader advocacy efforts are need to strengthen governments’ commitment to increasing the quantity and quality of investment and create a culture of transparency around use of public resources.

In short, this tool for measuring investment in the youngest members of society solves some methodological difficulties and its first-time use in Latin America offers a solid base-line measurement. While there are still important elements to be addressed in analyzing economic investments by governments, the region has nevertheless shown we can and should move forward in this regard. Immediate related and follow-up actions should include, among others, costing exercises of government level policies and programs as well as a cost-effectiveness analysis of different early childhood interventions.

The authors Joaquin Gonzalez-Aleman, Monica Darer and Maria Elena Ubeda work in UNICEF’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

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  1. A methodology to measure government financial committment is a noble idea and a social science breakthrough.

  2. I think it is a very important study, not only because of the methodology employed, but also because it allows comparing policies of similar countries, and above all because of the possibility to recommend a country its ideal investment for early childhood development.