Early Childhood Development: Investing in our most valuable natural resource

 “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterward”
St. Francis Xavier
“Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.”
Michael Levine

Bolivia spends at least ten times as much on each senior citizen as it does on pre-school children. This seems odd to me as the children are our future, and every dollar spent on them represents an investment, whereas spending on old people is just that…spending.

There have been many attempts to create Early Childhood Development programs in Bolivia, but they have never been fully adopted by the government, and the coverage has always remained very low (less than 10%) and dependent on foreign aid and a few NGOs working with children. The responsibilities for the Early Childhood programs have constantly shifted around between different ministries. Just during the last 13 years, the Programa de Atención a Niños y Niñas menores de 6 años (PAN), has been under the Ministry of Human Development, the Ministry of the Presidency, the Ministry of Sustainable Development, and is now awkwardly located under the Ministry of Justice.

Given the obvious importance of giving all our children the best possible start in life, as well as decades of failed attempts to increase the coverage and impacts of various Early Childhood programs, it is time to reconsider the strategy.

Last year, the IDB solicited an evaluation of PAN and the results (download summary) will be presented and discussed in an Early Childhood Development Workshop this Friday at Hotel Europa in La Paz (download invitation).

Here is an even shorter summary: While there are some PAN-style centers that work very well and are highly appreciated by the parents and the community, in general they tend to be very expensive places to park and feed the children. None of the program evaluations carried out to date have been able to prove any learning advantage, although that was supposed to be the main purpose of such a program. In addition, the program has had a rural bias, which seems strange since rural households generally do not need parking and feeding services for their children.

I am no expert on Early Childhood Development, and I wouldn’t even trust myself to raise and educate my own children without help. Still, I would venture the following recommendations:

  • To achieve the highly needed education effect, I would expand primary education downwards to include kinder and pre-kinder levels. Primary school has achieved almost universal coverage in Bolivia by now, but the kids are not well prepared for school when they enter, which means that several years are spent on just learning the alphabet, the numbers, the colors, and other basic skills. I would enroll them earlier, and take advantage of the steep learning curve of pre-schoolers, to make sure that they are bi-lingual and ready to learn to read and write when they start in first grade.
  • Bolivia has universal health coverage for pregnant mothers and young children, and I would simply make sure that it continues so. Nutrition is greatly helped by the “school breakfast” program and I would keep and support that too. I would add a school dentist program and a regular health check in the school, but education should still be the priority.

While health is important, I think Early Childhood Development is mostly about education, and I believe the responsibility of young children should rest with the Ministry of Education. I think it is the only ministry who can handle that incredibly important task, and I hope it will receive the support it needs to do so.

I also think that young children need specialized educators, so there needs to be a pre-school specialization in teachers’ education. It is not sufficient just to hire any mother from the neighborhood, as has generally been the practice. As Michael Levine said “Having children makes you no more a parent than having a piano makes you a pianist.”

How can we improve Bolivia’s childhood development? Leave a reply below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.


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