In this section we concentrate on just four of these: the scientific argument, the rights-based argument, the
economic argument, and the human development argument.
The scientific argument is a very clear one. It is based on developmental research that has shown that the
early years are extraordinarily important in relation to a child’s development intellectually, emotionally,
socially, physically, and morally. We know from evidence in a variety of fields such as psychology,
physiology, nutrition and health care that particularly during the early years, both physical and
environmental factors play a significant role in child development2 .
The combined impact of quality health care, adequate nutritional sustenance, and appropriate intellectual
stimulation on young children’s physical, mental and emotional growth are synergistic and cannot be
broken into separate domains. These impacts are powerful, exact and affect not just general development
but the specific wiring of the brain.
Beginning at conception and continuing on through birth, the environment has a significant impact on
brain development. A simple summary of what is known about brain development is:
• Before the age of one, brain development is quicker and more encompassing than heretofore thought.
Cell formation is essentially complete prior to birth but brain maturation continues.
• The brain is extraordinarily susceptible to environmental influences. Brain development is seriously
compromised by inadequate nutrition prior to birth and during the first years of life. Consequences
can include neurological and behavioural disabilities such as learning disabilities and mental illness.
• Early environments influence brain development. Infants raised in stimulating environments have
better brain function at age 12 than those raised in less stimulating environments.
• Early stress adversely affects brain function, learning, and memory. Young children who experience
extreme stress later in life are at greater risk for behavioural, emotional, and cognitive problems.4
From the time of conception until a child enters primary school, development advances at a pace greater
than any other stage in life.5 During this period children develop remarkable linguistic and cognitive skills
and they begin to exhibit emotional, social, and moral capabilities. Development can be compromised or
enhanced depending upon the social and economic circumstances children experience, and long-term
differences are clearly associated with social and economic circumstances. Understanding this process
makes clear the many remarkable accomplishments that young children achieve despite the many
problems they and their families encounter.
The rights-based argument for attention to the early years is based squarely on the Convention on the
Rights of the Child. The Convention takes a holistic view of development. Articles 2 (non-discrimination),
3 (the best interests of the child), 6 (inherent right to life, survival and development) and 12 (participation
of the child) set out basic principles while other Articles are concerned with health, family, education, and
respect for the child in her or his own culture and environment.
While the right to development is an overriding principle of the Convention, young children are
specifically mentioned only in terms of survival, health and malnutrition, birth registration. However, in
addition to the above, the following Articles are specifically relevant to young children: Article 5
(evolving capacities of the child), Article 24 (health and social services), Article 27 (standard of living),
Article 28 (education), Article 29 (aims of education), and Article 31 (leisure, recreation and cultural
If the nations of the world are to take seriously the right to development, they have to begin at the
beginning – with prenatal care for pregnant women and from birth until at least eight years of age for all
children as this is the only way they can ensure a healthy development for all, as well as the only way
they can ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under the Convention. Governments need to
make the appropriate balance between protection rights and development rights, both of which are
especially important for young children.
The rights-based argument is further supported by commitments made by governments at the World
Conference on Education for All in Jomtien in 1990. Article 5 of the Declaration states that ‘Learning
begins at birth. This calls for early childhood care and initial education. These can be provided through
arrangements involving families, communities, or institutional programmes, as appropriate.’ During a
follow-up meeting in Dakar in 2000 the first of the adopted goals is: ‘Expanding and improving
comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged
Governments are the only bodies that can put the appropriate policy and legal frameworks in place. They
have to take the lead but they do not have to work alone. Civil society is an essential partner in early
childhood development at all levels and should be involved as participants and implementers where
The economic argument is as compelling as the scientific and rights-based arguments when the question
‘why early childhood programmes?’ is posed. Although only a very few studies have done the detailed
calculations of costs and benefits that give us actual figures in dollars and cents, the benefits are obvious.
The most valuable economic asset of any country is its population, known in economic terms as ‘human
capital’. Human capital is best developed by providing every child with the opportunity to develop to her
or his full potential. In early childhood this means focusing on health, learning, and behavioural
development. Underdeveloped language acquisition, social skills, lack of the ability to think critically and
the capacity to learn, all of which develop during the early years along with physical disabilities, learning
impairments, poor preparedness for school, and gender disadvantages among others keep prosperity and
development from occurring.7 Robert Fogel, a Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences wrote in 1993:
Much of the capacity for success in life depends on the quality of prenatal care of mothers, on
nutritional adequacy during pregnancy, and on both physiological and spiritual nurturing of
children during early childhood. Not only is the physiological basis for good health laid during
these early years, but those essential values that have such high payoffs in competitive labor
markets are also transmitted from parents to children.8.
In recent years, there has been an increased effort to place a monetary value on the benefits of early
childhood care and development programmes. From an economic perspective, the test of any investment
is whether the rate of return justifies the expense.
Cost-benefit analysis in early childhood holds that education is both a consumptive good that gives
immediate benefits and an investment good that gives personal and social benefits well into the future.9
From an economic perspective, cost-benefit analysis entails estimating the monetary values of streams of
costs and benefits in order to measure the programme’s net value as a social investment. There are two
core components of a cost-benefit analysis: a detailed estimate of all programme costs (regardless of the
source of the financing) and the identification of multiple programme benefits or effects. Benefits or
effects must be assigned a monetary value. Cost benefit requires the use of a control or comparison group
who serve as estimates of the cost of the programme without the intervention and a participant group
from whom estimates are derived for the intervention.10 Constant dollars are calculated by analysing
streams of costs and benefits over time. Additional analyses can include discounting costs to the present
by using appropriate rates of discount which reflect the opportunity cost of public resources.11
Three long-term studies that conform to this pattern are available from the USA. The returns have been
calculated at amounts between four and seven dollars for every single dollar spent on the early childhood
programme.12 These are rates of return on investment that many commercial enterprises would envy.
Cost-benefit analyses are by necessity situation and country specific. Each study is unique, and results do
not carry over easily to other countries, regions, or target groups.13 When discussing the economics of
education, cost benefit analysis demonstrates that early education, while a fundamental right of every
human being, is also an investment in human capital. Investments in human capital make economic sense
because the value of additional future benefits exceeds the extra costs to be incurred in the present.14
Research has shown that financial benefits of early childhood development programmes accrue directly to
children and families, and that there are financial and other benefits to communities and society as a
whole. For example, the implications of improved health and nutrition on performance and mortality rates,
increased school enrolment with lower repetition and drop-out rates, influences on gender disparities,
childbearing, unsocial behaviour. These are discussed in more detail in the next section.
The human development argument is perhaps the most compelling of all the arguments for devoting
resources to early childhood. Attention to young children and their families contributes to the overall
quality of human experience in both the short and the long terms. This leads to an overall enhancement in
the quality of any individual society and thus, to enrichment of world society at large.
A recent review of 11 early childhood studies covering 15 countries15 lists the following as the most
important and consistent findings:
• Early childhood development and care programmes in the early years can do much to prevent
malnutrition and increase children’s chances of survival.
• Intervention during the early years can assist in the healthy development of children cognitively,
socially, emotionally and physically.
• Participation in preschool programmes promotes cognitive development in the short term and
prepares children to succeed in school.
• Early childhood programmes can reduce educational inequalities.
• Interventions can raise the status of mothers in the home and community.
• Interventions reduce gender inequalities.
• Early interventions generate economic returns and reduce social costs by reducing grade retention,
special education placement, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse.
A range of studies on the effects of early childhood development programmes have highlighted a wide
variety of findings:
• Turkey: Programme mothers enjoy higher inter-family status, greater decision-making, more role
sharing, and better communication with their husbands. They have greater satisfaction in their current
life situations and positive expectations for the future.16
• United Kingdom: Children who spend time learning at home with parents combined with quality
preschool experiences had more positive social and intellectual development.17
• New Zealand: Competency levels are affected by early childhood educational experiences. Of
particular importance is the quality of teacher support as well as the quality of teacher interactions
with the children.18
• Ten-country IEA Preprimary Project: The most important contribution at age 7 to children’s
language and general performance can be attributed to free activities in which teachers let children
choose the activities.19
• Nepal: Girls and boys who attended the ECD programmes enrol in primary school in equal numbers,
compared to a 39 percent enrolment for girls and 61 percent enrolment for boys with no ECD
experience … parents of children who participated in the ECD programmes are more likely to take an
active role in their children’s first and second grade of school. This includes talking to the teachers,
showing an interest in their children’s progress, engaging actively with the school management
committees, raising issues that concern them, and calling for accountability from teachers and
• Mauritius: At the age of 23, self report rates of criminal behaviour for children who had participated
in the enrichment programme were significantly lower than those who had not.21
• Kenya: The proportion of children with untrained preschool teachers who dropped out at Standard 1
was six times that of children with trained teachers.22
• Honduras: Teachers observed characteristics that differentiate programme children from nonprogramme
children: knowledge and use of language, ability to learn, punctuality, responsibility,
sociability, ability to communicate, hygiene.23
• Israel: Programme children perceive themselves, and are perceived by their parents, as more mature
than children in the comparison group. It is possible that parents’ greater confidence in their ability to
educate and provide for their children enables them to give their children room for independence and
responsibility, which the children take on and develop into a more adult and responsible behaviour
• Jamaica: The comparison group mothers had produced more than twice as many children over the
last 13 years as the programme mothers combined.
Ireland: Ten years on, the nutritional intake of children from the programme group is consistently
better than that of the control group.26
• Colombia: Twenty years after the programme began, educators are involved in community activities,
their homes are much better, they have increased feelings of competence and self-confidence, they
continue to participate in activities to improve their community and are proud of the educational leaps
that their children have made.27
• USA: At age 21, those who had been in the programme were more likely to have attended a 4-year
college, postponed childbirth and to be employed.28
• USA: Cost-benefit analysis indicates that every dollar invested in the preschool programme returned
$7.14 in education, social welfare, and socioeconomic benefits by reducing public expenditures for
remedial education, criminal justice treatment, and crime victims. Cost-benefit analysis in the
extended intervention programme (4-6 years of participation) provided a return to society of $6.11
per dollar invested.29
• USA: At age 27 female participants in the programme had only about two-thirds as many out-ofwedlock
births as did the non-participants; only one-fifth as many programme members as control
group were arrested five times or more and only one third as many were ever arrested for drug
dealing; four times as many programme members as no-programme members earned $2,000 or more
per month; almost three times as many owned their own homes; and over twice as many owned two
• USA: The mixed-approach Early Head Start programmes have the strongest pattern of impact among
families … evidence of the ability of the programmes to adjust services based upon family needs,
cultures, and perspectives which allows them to keep families participating for longer periods of time.
Early intervention is better … the impact is greater on children’s outcomes whose mothers enrol
• USA: Head Start parents report increases in intellectual and socially stimulating activities they
engage in with their children. Intellectual activities include story telling, teaching letters, numbers,
and words, and going to museums. Socialising activities include household chores, running errands
and attending sporting events. Parents report that Head Start taught them a new manner in which to
discipline their children and a significant increase in their sense of control over their lives.32
Thus we can see that quality early childhood programmes in many parts of the world have effects that last
far longer than the programme itself and that effects reach out to parents, future parents and society at
large. But how are quality early childhood programmes achieved?