Early child development for 2030: China’s post-MDG plan

A little over a year ago, Brookings and the China Development Research Foundation cohosted a discussion on how to best prepare future generations through early childhood development. Madame Liu Yandong, vice premier of the People’s Republic of China, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State, presented dual keynote addresses emphasizing the importance of early childhood development programs and their potential for having long-term global impact.

Madame Liu anticipated that China would soon release a national plan for development of children in poor areas, with a goal “to ensure the healthy growth of every child in China.” She cited data demonstrating how China has met the U.N. Millennium Development Goals to reduce infant and child mortality rates. While acknowledging the “daunting challenge” of promoting children’s development in China, which is home to nearly 310 million children, Madame Liu remarked that “investment in early childhood development is a human capital investment with the highest return.” She noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping “attaches great importance to early childhood development,” thus sharing a vision expressed by President Barack Obama.

In December, China’s State Council issued the National Child Development Plan (for 2014‒2020) for Poverty-Stricken Areas (link in Chinese), which aims specifically to reach 40 million rural children in 680 counties. This plan prioritizes early interventions not only to increase child survival, but also to promote healthy child development, from birth to the completion of compulsory education, through provision of quality care and comprehensive protection. The goals are to raise the level of child development in the targeted counties to or near the national average; to reduce under-5 stunting to 10 percent of children; and to reduce the rates of infant and under-5 mortality to 12 per 1,000 children and 15 per 1,000 children, respectively.

This directive encourages national, provincial, and local governments to innovate continually (by conducting pilot studies and then evaluating and revising them);  disseminate the lessons learned; expand capacity in the “know-how” of healthy child development; apply and use data to inform policy and programs; and leverage increased funding from public and private sources. China’s success in innovation and implementation derives from its capability and flexibility to continually experiment with pilot initiatives, to leverage and translate lessons from these pilots to policy, and to scale up—as it did when introducing the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. 

As development agencies look beyond the goals for 2015 and on to 2030, how early child development is framed in the development architecture really matters. To move forward, there must be a shift from beyond child survival to children’s holistic development by promoting their capabilities. Among the key tasks to consider are redirection of social policies to focus on young children ages 0‒6 years, expansion of public health and education models to incorporate the science of early human development, and collection and use of data to track how well children are doing and to quantify levels of inequality in child development across population groups. 

Population measures that are designed and used to track child development must focus on objective assessments of what children actually “look like,” as opposed to subjective appraisals of where they should be on a milestone chart. Such assessments would then provide evidence for making sound policy decisions and aligning policies with program impacts.  Countries currently and routinely collect data on rates of infant, maternal, and child mortality, as well as breastfeeding and immunization. While it is essential to have reliable data on child survival and access to services, now is the time when governments can and should be seeking indicators that go beyond mere survival, and capture, in addition, how well children are developing.

Building on successful pilots, China’s recent National Nutrition Intervention Program expands coverage of freely provided nutritional supplementation to all young children in remote poor counties. This pilot-to-policy translation was led by the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF). CDRF is now piloting and evaluating a “nutrition plus parenting” intervention modelled after a successful program in Jamaica that has also been replicated in other Latin American countries. It is also planning an independent evaluation of a village-based family skills and child development program emphasizing nurturing care for “left-behind” children, ages 0-6, developed and implemented by the Half the Sky Foundation. With its emphasis on continual evaluation-feedback-revision and translation of effective programs into policy, China is uniquely positioned to share the knowledge and lessons it generates with other developing countries and, ultimately, to leverage increased investment and capacity in early child development both within China and globally.