The ‘youth bulge’ in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is here, and projections suggest that the high numbers of youth under-30 will not soon abate. Stakeholders from the classroom to the ministry and beyond recognize the urgency these demographics require, and are acting now to support effective investments to better harness the potential of young women and men.
Early Childhood Education (ECE) is an excellent example because investing in the very young can help prepare them for the demands of the economy. Rigorous evidence shows that investing in ECE results in few dropouts, higher learning achievement, and has been associated with stronger economic growth for countries. The question of how best to finance ECE brought me to Kuwait for the High-Level Regional Workshop on Expanding Quality ECE in the MENA region.
Participants included senior level representatives from Ministries of Education and other relevant entities who play decision-making roles in the design, implementation, oversight and evaluation of ECE national policies or programs. The Workshop was organized as part of the Education for Competitiveness (E4C) initiative – a regional initiative launched jointly by the World Bank (WB) and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) with the objective of supporting countries improve their education systems.
My colleagues on the panel included World Bank Economist, Ciro Avitabile who spoke about his experience working with governments in Latin America develop ECE policies, and a representative from Tunisia who shed light on the challenges in creating fiscal space (the room in a government’s budget that allows it to provide resources for a desired purpose) in her country. My talking points were based on findings from a paper R4D published on Early Childhood Development financing in low and middle-income countries. I highlighted four key findings from the report.
- Domestic financing is critical to ensuring sustainability of services, yet ECE is consistently underfunded – on average less than 0.1% of GDP. Estimates from the Global Monitoring Report state that current spending on pre-primary education in low- and lower-middle income countries would need to increase seven times what is currently being spent to meet Sustainable Development Goal 4.2. by 2030.
- There are diverse models for delivering and financing ECE, including public, private, or semi-private models that can take place in schools or community centers. The Arab states in fact, have the highest enrollment rate in private ECE institutions compared to anywhere else in the world. The private sector is almost the sole provider of pre-primary education in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories.
- Varied delivery and financing models can challenge coordination and accountability but have also presented alternative methods for expanding coverage to diverse populations. In Lebanon, for example, the government’s Reaching All Children with Education Strategy (RACE), has made provisions for making ECE opportunities available to Syrian refugees who cannot be accommodated in the public system through community-based programs.
- Innovative financing has been explored although these mechanisms are not immune to challenges encountered in traditional finance. Given the current state of underinvestment and often poor quality of ECE services, donors and governments alike have begun to explore the use of innovative financing in terms of delivery mechanism and source of funds. Examples include impact bonds and sin taxes. Innovative finance, however, should not be seen as a silver bullet for ECE financing.
These points generated strong interest among participants. Many wanted to discuss the role of innovative finance and appropriate funding modalities for ECE services. Others were interested in fiscal space and asked fellow participants to share relevant lessons on, and examples of ways to increase funding. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to these questions. Instead, there are a few guiding principles that governments, donors, and interested stakeholders can consider as they think of ways to increase ECE financing.
- Domestic sources as the backbone of long term ECE finance. Innovative and international finance are crucial sources of ECE finance – especially when urgent gaps remain in ECE delivery to the most marginalized and vulnerable children. In the long run, however, domestic funds should be the backbone of ECE financing. Although governments will need to take up the overall responsibility of ensuring quality universal ECE access, this does not mean that they need to fund 100 percent of services.
- Straightforward policies to support ECE finance. The challenges faced by governments are not only financial, but also involve administrative and coordination constraints. For example, budget allocations for ECE are often uncoordinated among the many services and are not based on explicit criteria or need, which can hamper the effectiveness of investments. In such cases, it is important to have clear guidelines and policies for ECE financing.
- Encourage multi-sector coordination amongst departments and providers. ECE is just one part of early childhood development (ECD) that also includes health, nutrition, social protection, child protection, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). In most countries, multiple agencies and actors are involved in funding and financing ECD. Multi-sectoral policy planning should be encouraged at the top levels of government to assure efficiency, coordination and alignment across financing streams.
- Attempt to build off existing delivery systems. Rather than creating new programs and services, existing education, health, and social protection platforms can be used as a cost-effective way to expand ECE support to young children. For example, parenting interventions can be integrated into home visiting services provided by the health sector.
These principles are easy to recommend but very difficult to practice. ECE design, financing, and implementation are not uncomplicated tasks. But in leaving the Regional Workshop in Kuwait, I am optimistic that the MENA region is progressing with determination towards the targets they set out.
The early years present a window of opportunity for investments that yield significant long-term benefits for children. For a region like MENA with one of the highest fertility rates in the world, planning and ensuring financing for ECE is crucial to the region's long term growth prospects. I for one will be sure to keep a close lookout for what countries in the region will do in the coming years as they plan and expand ECE access to all their children.
Arjun Upadhyay is a program officer on the global education team at Results for Development (R4D). His work centers on education economics, finance, and project evaluations. Arjun’s areas of activity include research on early childhood development (ECD) financing, education costing and expenditure analysis, and low-fee private schools.