Press Release – Despite promises top education donors leave the youngest and most vulnerable children behind (April 4, 2019)

New report from global children’s charity Theirworld reveals that total international funding for early childhood education in the world's poorest countries has dropped to just $0.26 per child per year. 

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After pledging to deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Leaving the youngest behind, a new report released today by Theirworld shows that the international community has decreased its funding and prioritisation of early childhood education for the youngest and most vulnerable children.  

The report, in collaboration with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, reveals that 16 of the top 25 donors to global education gave nothing or reduced their previous spending on early childhood education, despite the latest research indicating that over 90% of a child’s brain development takes place from birth to the age of five. 

Between 2015 and 2017, aid spent on early childhood education declined by 27%, from US$94.8 million to US$68.8 million — equating to just $0.26 per child per year in the world’s poorest countries. Children in conflict-affected countries were even worse off with only $0.17 per child per year directed to early childhood education. 

Research shows that early childhood education – also known as preschool, kindergarten and nursery – is widely recognised as critical for children to reach their full potential. Further, it is a sound investment with every $1 in early childhood care and education yielding as much as $17 in return for the most disadvantaged children. Yet previous research shows that today, more than 150 million children are not in early childhood education.  

Whilst donors continue to claim early childhood education is important, few match their public statements with tangible support, highlighting the growing gap between rhetoric and reality. The United States, Sweden, Netherlands and Austria did not report any investment in early childhood education in 2017. United Kingdom and Australia invested just 0.5%, and 0.2% of their education aid in the youngest children respectively, in contrast to the internationally recognised 10% target. 

While the World Bank is the largest donor to early childhood education, its overall funding has decreased. UNICEF, while smaller in size, dedicated more than 8% of its education spending to early childhood education, leading on the scorecard. 

Without urgent action, it is clear the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 target of inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030 will not be reached.  

Theirworld President Justin van Fleet said: “It is shocking that world leaders talk about the importance of investing in children at the same time as they decrease support for the youngest and most vulnerable children who deserve the best start in life.”  

“Investing in early childhood education is not only the right thing to do but it is good economics, as well as good health policy and education policy. Countries that invest in education for the youngest children have seen tremendous gains in growth and long-term outcomes.” 

Chair of Theirworld Sarah Brown said the results of the report paint a desperate picture for the youngest and most vulnerable children. 

A lack of donor support to early childhood education means millions of the world’s youngest children, in particular girls, children with disabilities and children living in vulnerable situations, including areas with high prevalence of HIV, are being left behind. 

Without access to good quality, equitable and inclusive early education, we limit a child’s ability to learn and thrive in school and later in life.” 

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the REAL Centre said“Early childhood education is widely recognised as critical if children are to reach their full potential, yet our new analysis shows donors are actually cutting their aid spending on this vital stage of learning to pitiful levels.  

Donors are failing to match their public endorsement for early childhood education with tangible support, putting in danger the Sustainable Development Goal commitment to leave no one behind.” 

The report calls on all donor countries and international institutions to make early childhood education a specific policy priority within their international development strategies and direct a minimum of 10% of their education budgets to early childhood education.

Theirworld’s #WriteTheWrong campaign will mobilise over 1,000 youth campaigners, the business community and the public to draw greater attention to early education.



Notes to Editor 

Summary of Findings  

  • In 2015, early childhood educations’ share of total education aid was 0.8%. In 2016, this fell to 0.6%. In 2017 it declined further to 0.5%. 

  • The youngest children in the most vulnerable situations are even more neglected. While one-half of the pre-primary school-aged population live in conflict-affected states, they receive less than one-third of early childhood education spending. 

  • In countries with high HIV prevalence rates where 7% of the pre-primary school-aged population live, children receive 11% of early childhood education spending. While they fare better, given their needs, they require a larger share of the scarce resources. 

  • While donors’ spending on early childhood education has been declining, aid to fund higher education scholarships has increased during the same period. In 2017, aid spending on scholarships was 42 times more than for early childhood education. 

  •  Aid to early childhood education is precarious. Taking into account the small number of donors to education, together with the even smaller number who disburse significant funds to the early childhood education sub-sector, and without greater political commitment, investment in early childhood education is at high risk of volatility year-on-year.  

  • Of the 25 top donors to education, only 15 reported any financing commitments at all to early childhood education in 2015 and 2017. Of these, nine donors have decreased their commitment, signifying a worrying trend at odds with donors’ own policy statements. 


Summary of Recommendations 

  • Strengthen – and implement – policy commitments to early childhood education, making it a clear part of every international donor country and agency’s education strategy. 

  • Increase spending on early childhood education to reach 10% of the total education ODA, setting targets for 2020, 2025 and 2030 and for achieving fair share levels of support for early childhood education. 

  • Channel priority grant funding to countries most in need, including low-income countries, conflict-affected countries, and to countries and communities with special circumstances and obstacles, including communities with high levels of HIV/AIDS. 

  • Target ODA to early childhood education for the most marginalised groups of children, including the poorest, children with disabilities, girls and minority groups. 

  • The World Bank, the largest donor in volume terms, should reverse the recent decline in aid to early childhood education and make a public commitment to increase the total share of education ODA to early childhood education to at least 10%.

  • Given the low investment in early childhood education in countries affected by conflict, Education Cannot Wait should increase its spending on early childhood education to at least 10% of its total budget and incentivise its partners to prioritise early childhood education in its first-response and multi-year response plans. 

  • Given the low investment in early childhood education in countries affected by conflict, Education Cannot Wait should increase its spending on early childhood education to at least 10% of its total budget and incentivise its partners to prioritise early childhood education in its first-response and multi-year response plans. 

  • The Global Partnership for Education should increase allocations to early childhood education from an average of 5% to at least 10% of its budget, setting an example for the broader international community. It should also improve its reporting on annual financing of the sub-sector, to allow accurate tracking of this spending. 

  • The International Finance Facility for Education should promote early childhood education as a priority investment area to incentivise government financing for early childhood education, particularly for marginalised populations, through this new financial instrument.