The Economics of Human Development

November 15, 2011

Editor’s note: In a presentation to the 2011 International Conference on Early Childhood Development in Beijing, China, Jacques van der Gaag makes the economic case for investing in young children. He references the seminal works by several Nobel laureates in economics to demonstrate how development hinges on investments in early childhood, including health, nutrition, and education.

Thank you for inviting me to the 2011 International Conference on Early Childhood Development. I am very grateful to the organizers from the China Development Research Foundation for giving me a chance to make the economic case for investing in young children. While I have been giving these types of presentations for more than two decades in over a dozen countries worldwide, I prefer to have some back-up from a number of serious economists who, over time, have made major contributions to a key finding in development economics: countries prosper if they invest in their people, and the well-being of all people improves in a prosperous country that values equality.

To begin with, I would like to introduce my fellow countryman Jan Tinbergen, who received the first Nobel Prize in Economics, in 1969, for his work on economic development. Being a physicist by training, he pioneered the use of mathematical models to mimic the working of a country’s economy. The equations he used to formulate these models will probably look very foreign to you, but the important point I want to make is that these early models already included people, in the form of labor. People were seen as an input in the production process. Since there was an abundance of people in the developing world, and a shortage of capital, the development process, it was argued, could be sped up by providing more capital to low income countries to invest in infrastructure, factories, and other forms of physical capital. And to invest in human capital — people. The economy needs all forms of human capital, from unskilled labor to highly skilled labor, and therefore investment in people, through education, was considered an integrated part of the development process.

Another well-known economist (Theodore W. Schulz, Nobel prize 1979) emphasized an important difference between physical capital and human capital: people respond to incentives. Thus, when food prices are being kept artificially low (to allow wages in the cities to stay low), farmers may decide that it is no longer worth their while to produce food, and they may migrate to the cities to work in the new factories. In other words, it is important to invest in human capital to stimulate the economy, but the broad preferences of the (working) population should not be overlooked.
Robert W. Fogel (Nobel laureate in 1993) underscored the role of workers in the production process by emphasizing the importance of health and nutrition to enhance productivity. Indeed, he calculated that about half of the speedy growth of the British economy during the Industrial Revolution was the result of better health and nutrition conditions of the working population. In turn, of course, the economic growth made the improvements in sanitation and the increased availability of (better) food possible.

A major breakthrough in the thinking about development (note that I am no longer saying “economic development”) came with the work of Amartya Sen (Nobel prize winner in 1998). His work has led to a re-definition of the development process from one that focuses solely on economic growth to one in which the fruits of economic growth benefits the population in terms of higher literacy rates and education levels, better health and nutrition, higher levels of social cohesion and social skills, and more equality. These four broad dimensions of well-being, together with economic growth, are now the building blocks of the Human Development Index. Indeed, human development, as currently understood, has been further specified in the Millennium Development Goals that drive today’s development discussion and policies in every corner of the world.

Before I finish my very brief (and very selective) history of development economics, allow me to mention the work of one more Nobel laureate in economics: Jim Heckman (2000). Heckman understands, of course, the importance of investing in people to increase a country’s human capital. But he also understands both the economics of early childhood development (ECD) and its scientific underpinnings. In recent work, he has extensively referred to the scientific basis that shows the causal link between deprivations early in life and education, social and health outcomes later in life. His economic work on ECD confirms what others have been saying for decades: The highest economic returns to investments in people come from the investments that occur in the early years of life.  

In sum, with an increased understanding of the basic development process, in which people are both the driving force for development and its main beneficiaries, the importance of investing in very young children is now seen as a key factor in the broad human development process of a country.
Taking care of very young children has long been on the development agenda. Immunization programs have been pushed to improve the health status of young children, nutrition programs have been implemented to prevent malnutrition and hunger, schooling has been emphasized as important for prosperity later in life, and as a possible “equalizer” of society. What the recent literature on brain development, on the interaction of genes and the environment, on the importance of cognitive and non-cognitive skill development (“social skills”), and on the link between early deprivations and a variety of problems later in life (from health problems to increased delinquency) has added to these efforts, is a better understanding of the long-term economic implications of these interventions.
Simply stated, economists look at investments in human capital as a means to increase lifelong “productivity”. The easiest way to measure differences in productivity is by comparing differences in wage rates (in well functioning labor markets) among workers with different levels of education (skills). Higher levels of education (more and better skills) lead to higher productivity, and this advantage can be maintained during one’s entire (working) life. Of course, not everyone works for wages, but similar results (more educated workers are more productive) have been found in agriculture and other forms of self-employment. Indeed, even the productivity of people who do not work in the labor market can be improved by education. Case in point: women who finished secondary education are much better equipped to address the health and nutrition needs of their children than illiterate mothers (and they have fewer children and make sure that these children go to school).

When economist do the numbers, solely based on increased productivity in the labor market, the economic returns to ECD are impressive (see slides 21 and 22). Integrated ECD programs reduce infant and child mortality, increase children’s nutritional and health status, increase on-time school enrollment, decrease drop-out and repetition rates, and increase progression to higher levels of education. All this leads to a more productive labor force. The economic returns from these ECD benefits alone are estimated to be in the 7 percent to 12 percent range, with some estimates being much higher. When ECD interventions are properly seen as investments in the human development of a country, the benefits are very large indeed.
Chances are that you were a little surprised to get a lecture on the “the history of development economics” at a conference about early childhood development. But the organizers asked me to make the economic case for investing in young children. I decided that I could do this as forcefully as possible by invoking the help of no fewer than five Nobel laureates in economics. Development is now understood as a process by people for people. All the evidence shows that investment in the health, in nutrition, and in cognitive and non-cognitive skill development is crucial for a prosperous and equal society. Of all the investments in people one can make, investments in the very young have the highest economic returns.

I congratulate our organizers from the China Development Research Foundation for their work on ECD to benefit the children of poor minorities in western China, providing them with a chance to benefit from China’s impressive growth record. And I thank you again for the opportunity to address this distinguished audience on such an important topic.