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Despite promises, top education donors are leaving the youngest and most vulnerable children behind

Ecd Report 2019 1
Aid spent on early childhood education declined by 27%, from $94.8 million to $68.8 million, from 2015 to 2017 (UNICEF / Watad)

Early childhood development, Education funding, Education in emergencies, Justin van Fleet, Sarah Brown, Theirworld

A Theirworld report reveals international funding for early childhood education in the world's poorest countries has fallen to just 26 cents per child per year.


Despite pledging to help some of the world’s youngest and most vulnerable children, the international community has cut the funding and prioritisation of early childhood education, a report by Theirworld reveals today.

It shows that 16 of the top 25 donors to global education aid gave nothing or reduced their previous spending on pre-primary education. 

That is despite research showing that 90% of a child’s brain development takes place from birth to the age of five – and promises to deliver early childhood education as part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Theirworld’s report – Leaving the Youngest Behind – was produced in collaboration with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

It shows that between 2015 and 2017, aid spent on early childhood education declined by 27%, from $94.8 million to $68.8 million. That equates to just 26 US cents per child per year in the world’s poorest countries. 

Children in conflict-affected countries are even worse off, with only 17 cents per child per year directed to early childhood education.

“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,” said Theirworld President Justin van Fleet.

Theirworld’s #WriteTheWrong campaign will mobilise over 1,000 youth campaigners, the business community and the public to draw greater attention to early education – also known as pre-primary, preschool, kindergarten and nursery.

Pre Primary Donors Report Card

Research shows that early childhood education is widely recognised as critical for children to reach their full potential. 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. 

But previous research shows more than 150 million children are not in early childhood education. 

While 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 aid in 2017. The 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.

Leaving Youngest Behind Report 1

How donors cut back on pre-primary education aid from 2015 to 2017 (Theirworld / Leaving the Youngest Behind )

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 Theirworld report’s scorecard.

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

“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,” said van Fleet. 

“Countries that invest in education for the youngest children have seen tremendous gains in growth and long-term outcomes.”

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

Leaving Youngest Behind Report 2

The rise and fall of pre-primary education aid from 2002 to 2017 (Theirworld / Leaving the Youngest Behind)

She added: “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.”

Theirworld’s work on early childhood development is supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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What we're calling for

Theirworld's report urges 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. 

The report's recommendations to donors

  • 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 official development assistance (ODA) to education, 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 pre-primary education for the most marginalised groups of children, including the poorest, children with disabilities, girls and minority groups.
  • UNICEF, as the donor giving highest priority to pre-primary education in 2017, and a strong advocate for early childhood development, should lead by example and reach the pre-primary education target of 10%.
  • 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.
  • 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. 


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