February 14, 2017

Latin American leaders pledge to make early learning a priority

Young children from Colombia, one of the countries which signed the Buenos Aries Declaration

©UNESCO/Alejandra V. Jaramillo

Elaine Hunter

Early childhood development writer

Marginalised children will be the priority as education ministers agree action plans to tackle poverty and inequality and deliver education and early childhood programmes.

It’s been on the agenda for more than decade – and now leaders have revealed their action plans for early childhood development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Along with education and poverty, early childhood development has become a top priority, according to a report from the region's education ministers who met to adopt the Buenos Aires Declaration.

They promised:

  • To expand early childhood care programmes, prioritising marginalised groups
  • To fight poverty
  • To tackle inequality
  • To promote lifelong learning

The ministers vowed to uphold the global education agenda set out in the Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. That says all girls and boys should complete primary and secondary schooling and all schooling must be free, equitable and of quality. 

Esteban Bullrich, Minister of Education and Sports in Argentina, said: “The educational system requires a profound change. Someone who cannot build his/her own thoughts based on reading and shape his/her own ideas is not a free man or woman in this 21st century.

A young boy at a school in Florida, Colombia

©UNESCO/Ministerio de Educación

“We want youths to lead independent, free and full lives, in our country and worldwide. This is the focus of the required educational revolution, not only in Argentina but across the world.

Research in the region has shown that stimulation during the early years can improve a child’s outcome in life - and it doesn’t take much.

Social workers in Jamaica visited low-income homes in the 1980s for one hour a week for two years. They took toys for the children and gave parenting advice. Researchers tracked the outcomes and, a generation later, the results came back.

Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank, described what happened in a 2016 article for the New York Times.

He wrote: "The children whose homes were visited by social workers became adults who earn wages that are 25% higher than those earned by peers who had not been visited. Their IQs are an average seven points higher and they are less likely to resort to crime or suffer from depression."

Despite encouraging results like that, what has been lacking in Latin America is a consensus on how to measure child development at scale - especially for the youngest children.

While child mortality and malnutrition have been reduced in most countries, progress has been slower in other aspects of child development, such as cognitive, language, socio-emotional, and motor skills development.

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A workshop to share international measurement initiatives by experts was held by the World Bank in Peru last September in a bid to get agreement about the way forward. It was attended by 52 participants from countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.

The amount spent on early childhood development in Latin America varies widely between countries - anywhere from 2.1% to 9.1% of total public expenditure. According to UNICEF, the countries investing the greatest percentage of their public spending are Honduras, Costa Rica and Paraguay - at a rate of four times that of some others. 

Honduras and Peru invest 1.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) in public policies for ECD. At the other end, Mexico and Colombia invest 0.8% and 0.5% of their GDP in this population. 

"Recognising the importance of investing in young children has led to a proliferation of related public polices and government programmes," said the authors of that report by UNICEF's Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

"Yet these efforts have not always been accompanied by the necessary corresponding investment, a fact that hinders the coverage, quality and sustainability of ECD programmes."

The Buenos Aries Declaration may signal that Latin America's nations are now set to invest in early childhood development.

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