Children First

In a menu of philanthropic projects, early childcare programs come out on top   If you or your company would like to support a good philanthropic cause with the greatest possible impact, it would help a great deal if you had a menu of good projects, prepared on the basis of all the international experiences applicable to Latin American countries.   The preparation of that menu was the task of a panel of renowned academics meeting in the “Consulta de San José” at the end of October in Costa Rica with the support of the IDB and the “Copenhagen Consensus” (a Danish organization which conducted a similar exercise at world level some years ago). To achieve its mission the panel studied a very diverse series of proposals for solving the main economic and social problems that afflict Latin American countries. The proposals were presented by international specialists who carefully evaluated the costs and benefits of those with most potential.   Some proposals attempted to solve problems of poverty, lack of jobs, education and health which make Latin America the region with the world’s highest level of inequality. Other proposals offered solutions to combat crime, improve the working of political systems, strengthen the public administration and state finances. Lastly, others aimed to find effective formulas to improve transport infrastructure, and halt deforestation and preserve biodiversity.   Comparing the cost-benefit ratio and the viability of all the proposals, the expert panel concluded that the number-one priority would be a set of programs to solve the deficiencies of Latin American children. These range from programs to monitor children’s physical development, childcare services, pre-school activities and upgrading hygiene and health services, to improving the skills of mothers and fathers.   Spending on children yields high returns because they have their entire life to benefit from what is done for their health, mental development, and capacity to interact in society. The early years of life are crucial for breaking the cycle of poverty, deficient nutrition, poor school performance and low productive capacity which tend to be repeated generation after generation. It is scientifically demonstrated that the brain develops almost completely during the first five or six years of life, and that about half the intellectual potential is determined at the age of four.   In almost no other area, in international experience, do spending proposals offer such a high and well sustained cost-benefit ratio. For example, evaluations of pre-school programs, which are designed to stimulate mental development and socialization at an early age, offer a cost-benefit ratio of eight to one. Children who begin their school activity early have a better academic performance and so have more possibility of generating income as adults. And this is only the economic benefit. These children also have more possibilities of personal and social fulfillment throughout their lives.   There is also much that can be done before pre-school. The Colombian “Community Mothers” program (Madres Comunitarias), which benefits children under six, has been shown to be an effective and very low cost way of stimulating the physical, mental and social development of kids. In very poor communities especially in rural areas, programs to distribute nutrients – such as iodine, vitamin A and iron – to women who are pregnant or have newborn children can also have enormous benefits, up to 200 times their cost, because they are a basic way of preventing physical and mental retardation.   In addition to directly improving children’s welfare, these programs generate benefits for other family members. Women and older brothers and sisters can work outside the home or receive an education. Assisting early development in childhood provides as many immediate as long-term benefits.   If you want to expand even more the menu of philanthropic options with proven effectiveness, consult the conclusions of the panel of experts and the technical papers of the “Costa Rica Consultation,” which are being widely distributed by the IDB and the “Copenhagen Consensus.” There is no excuse for good intentions not becoming reality.

2 Responses to "Children First"

  1. Tom Trebat   November 19, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    Eduardo, can you give some idea of how much it would cost to bring every child before the age of six to full potential through the type of interventions you discuss? What are the major obstacles other than money and focus? Where is the problem most acute in Latin America? Which countries are leading the way? (Sorry for all the questions!)

  2. Eduardo Lora   December 7, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    Tom,Your questions are excellent. Rather than postponing my answer even longer in search of good answers, let me suggest the couple of papers that were presented at the “Consulta” on Reducing Poverty In Latin America and the Caribbean, at