Michelle Neuman is a Program Director at the Results for Development Institute (R4D) with a focus on early childhood development (ECD) and global education. She is a Lecturer in International Educational Development at the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout her career spanning the World Bank, Open Society Foundation, UNESCO, and OECD, she has focused on the design, implementation, and evaluation of early childhood policies and programs around the world.
You have been working on early childhood development policies and programs for almost 20 years. Why is early childhood development important to you?
I can’t imagine working on a more important issue than early childhood development. We have evidence from around the world showing that quality early childhood opportunities contribute to young children’s cognitive, socio-emotional, language, and physical development. We also know that what happens in the first years of life is critical for children’s later health, education, and employment outcomes. The findings from the 20-year follow-up study in Jamaica are quite remarkable: low-income, stunted children who participated in an intensive early intervention program in their homes earned 25% more as adults than those who did not take part. Early childhood development programs can help reduce inequalities that start early in life, but only if we improve access and quality across socio-economic groups, which remains difficult in many countries. While it has been very exciting to see the growing interest in early childhood development globally, we also have a long way to go to build systems that support quality programs for all children and families. And that is what keeps me going in this field.
During your career you have worked in many countries. What are some of the barriers to quality early childhood development in low- and middle-income countries?
In my view, there are three big challenges.
First, we need to remember that children’s development can be supported in many ways across health, nutrition, education, and social protection fields. What I find so interesting about early childhood development is that you can reach parents and young children in a variety of ways: you can integrate early childhood components into existing services like home visiting, nutrition or health interventions, and cash transfer programs. I have seen children attend preschool programs in schools, tents, and under trees. When we discuss quality, we need to think about supporting children’s development in a wide range of contexts.
Second, while I have seen good examples of early childhood programs in both high- and low-resource countries, the challenge is how to do these model programs well at scale. In Malawi, where I have worked, the community-based childcare centers began as a pilot in the 1990s. There are now around 6,000 centers reaching about a third of 3-5 year olds, and the quality is mixed. The government is exploring potential cost-effective strategies to make improvements, but there is no easy answer.
A third key to quality is strengthening the capacity of the early childhood workforce. As the sector expands, there is going to be a huge need for more teachers, home visitors, child care workers and the like, and all of these professionals will need training, support and most likely better pay and working conditions. Much of my recent work has been in sub-Saharan Africa where many programs are staffed by volunteers from local communities, who are typically motivated and committed to children. We don’t know much about the workforce needs and the different models for initial training and mentoring in developing countries. How do we create strong professional development systems in low-resource contexts? That is another challenge.
Addressing all three challenges to quality will likely require some new approaches to financing – the issue is both about generating new sources of funding from public and private sources, but also getting resources to programs in a smart way.
We need more money and we need to spend it wisely.
R4D supports the discovery and implementation of new ideas for reducing poverty and improving lives around the world. Why should R4D be expanding its focus on early childhood development now?
Improving early childhood development - particularly for the most disadvantaged - is clearly aligned with R4D’s mission. This is also an important time for R4D to get more involved. We have a new target for early childhood development in the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, which provides an opportunity to rally committed actors around a common vision for young children and families. Looking back, there has been good progress in reducing stunting rates and increasing preschool enrolment, for example, but looking ahead, there is much more that needs to be done to reach this new, ambitious global target. Tackling the low public and donor investment for early childhood is really critical, for instance.
What can R4D do? We can mobilize our expertise in education, health, and nutrition to take a cross-sectoral approach. We can conduct rigorous analyses to inform policy debates. We can build on our efforts to identify, analyze and connect promising innovative early childhood programs on the Center for Education Innovations and Center for Health Market Innovations. Ultimately, there are some great initiatives out there from which we can learn.
What is R4D’s strategy for contributing to the development of ECD policies and programs in low- and middle-income countries?
As a new area of R4D’s work, we will focus on topics where there are gaps in current knowledge; prospects for innovation and “new thinking” and those with high potential to catalyze action at the policy, program, or community level. I already mentioned the workforce and financing. These are two tough issues we are going to try to tackle. We are creating a knowledge hub for early childhood on CEI to showcase innovative programs and analytical work, and connect key actors in the field. We are also eager to expand our partnerships in low- and middle-income countries as part of the R4D approach. Our work is just getting started; stay tuned for developments in our early childhood portfolio.
Michelle Neuman is a Program Director at the Results for Development Institute (R4D) with a focus on early childhood development and global education. Throughout her career, she has focused on the design, implementation, and evaluation of early childhood policies and programs around the world. In her previous role as Senior Education Specialist, she led the World Bank’s global early childhood development work program by carrying out analytical work (including SABER-ECD), providing technical assistance to governments and task teams, and conducting trainings for staff and development partners.
Michelle holds an A.B. from the Woodrow Wilson School in Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Politics and Education from Columbia University. Since 2012, Michelle has been a Lecturer in international educational development at the University of Pennsylvania. View her full bio here.