This op-ed originally appeared on Education Week.
As parents, we all try to spend whatever is needed on our own young children to ensure their growth into healthy and productive adults and to give them as good a start in life as possible. Yet as societies, especially low- and middle-income societies, we don't invest enough in young children, and we certainly don't invest enough for our poorest children whose parents don't have the necessary resources.
We have erected a financial barrier to ensuring poor children's participation in early-childhood programs.
The consequences of this man-made barrier are probably better known than are ways to break the barrier. The barrier leads to older children who don't learn as well in school as they otherwise would; to adults who lead less productive lives in our economies and are less engaged as citizens; and to societies that, even with overall economic growth, are still unable to give a fair chance to all.
This financial barrier needs to be broken. It can be broken—we created it, after all, and we have examples that show it. And we urgently need to break it to give all the world's children the opportunities they deserve.
We don't need more early-childhood policy documents without teeth. More than half of African countries now have such policies; the problem is that almost none is properly funded.
We don't need more debates about the respective roles of the public and private sectors. The reality is that early-childhood programs around the world are mainly, but by no means only, delivered by the private sector.
We don't need more economics, either. Finance is often conflated with economics, but it should not be. The economic case for investing in young children is well established—what else promotes both growth and equity? What else can ensure that all children can have a fair start in life? Yet economists continue to spend unnecessary time establishing yet again the return on such investments.
The real barrier is not the lack of policy or the role of the private sector or the lack of economic analysis. The real barrier is finance, where to get the capital to make such investments and to fund the unfunded policies. We urgently need to put our energy into finance, not into policy documents, ideological public-private debates, and economic analyses.
We can break this financial barrier. We just have to systematically adopt three crucial steps.
First, we have to increase public spending on young children. Sounds simple, but it isn't, because public funding of programs for young children is usually fragmented. Typically, we don't just have one government department in charge of these programs; rather, they involve multiple ministries, including health and education and social welfare, in each of which young children's importance is relatively minor and so gets inadequate attention.
But there are ways around this. Many countries in Latin America, notably but not only Chile, have raised public spending on very young children. Some countries impose a special tax that is earmarked for young children, like the sin tax in the Philippines. Some governments, as in Utah in the United States, reimburse private investors who finance early-childhood programs once those programs produce results.
Second, we have to recognize that most programs for very young children are delivered by the private sector. So we need to encourage the participation of poor children in these private programs. We can give publicly funded vouchers to these children and their families to do this, through conditional cash transfers, as in Mexico. We can set up tax and other incentives so that private providers themselves subsidize poorer children from the fees paid by the parents of more affluent ones—just as private universities in the United States subsidize needy college students. We can encourage microfinance programs to help poor parents pay for their children to take part, as in Brazil.
Third, we have to get early-childhood financing away from the early-childhood experts. These experts are great, often with backgrounds in psychology and extraordinary levels of personal commitment to very young children. But they don't know about finance. And they don't know about what has been achieved in other development areas, like telecommunications, water resources, and health, all of which have much to teach early-childhood programs about effective finance and effectively targeting it on the poor.
No one of these steps is the magic right step. All three are needed in different combinations in different economies and societies. But all three need to be tried—even if some mistakes are made in the process. The problem with early-childhood financing, unlike a lot of other areas in development, is not that financing attempts have failed—it is that we have failed to make attempts.
Image courtesy of Pebbles Project