Two Great Nations Convene to Discuss the Future of the World’s Children: U.S.-China Collaboration on Early Childhood Development

The world has made great strides in expanding access to basic education.  But as more information becomes available about the poor quality of the education that many children receive while in school, attention has shifted to improving learning outcomes.  With an enhanced focus on learning outcomes comes an increasing recognition of the importance of a good start in life.  For many poor children around the world, the die is cast in terms of their future potential by the time they enter school.  Poor children come to school without the requisite tools to learn and are at a significant disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers—a disadvantage that affects their ability to learn while in school and persists into adulthood through their lower capacity to find and retain gainful employment.  An increasing body of evidence demonstrates the benefits of a hospitable early childhood environment and the near irreversible losses that result from its absence.  Yet investments in early childhood development (ECD) remain limited, piecemeal and often of a boutique nature, supported primarily by donor agencies or nongovernmental organizations.  For policymakers, it should be a source of dismay that so much productive potential is lost, especially when there are known interventions that would expand capacities of children—especially of poor children—by improving their school readiness, their performance while in school, and their earnings in the labor market.  For these reasons, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings is ramping up its engagement on early childhood development.

Last week on November 20, Brookings hosted an event together with the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) to start a series of conversations about the importance of ECD and explore the possibilities for collaboration between the US and China on a topic that is high on the policy agenda for both countries.  Madame Liu Yandong, vice premier of the People’s Republic of China, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, gave compelling speeches on the importance of ECD programs and their potential for achieving long-term global impact.  Secretary Clinton made a call for including early childhood development in the post-2015 development framework.  It was evident from the event that while U.S. and Chinese policymakers may find themselves holding different positions on many important topics, ECD is a topic that brings the two countries together.  There is much to share between the two nations but also much to learn for the global community from the experiences of both countries as they navigate through the challenging tasks of forging and maintaining political support for the agenda and addressing the multiple implementation bottlenecks to extend quality services to all children who need them.

The event featured two panel discussions with leading Chinese, American and international experts on ECD who addressed ECD interventions as an investment and discussed ways to further U.S.-China collaboration on ECD.  Several common themes emerged from the discussions from the Chinese and American sides alike.  To scale up ECD such that all children are able to develop to their full potential, there are four main areas that the global community should consider.  First, there is a need to conduct more operational research to guide program content, mix and delivery models.  This point was raised by Professor Larry Aber of New York University, Dr. Santiago Levy of the Inter-American Development Bank as well as Dr. Lu Mai of CDRF.  The experts noted that not only must the research be done, but it needs to be made widely available and easily interpretable so that policymakers and advocates of ECD are able to access it.  This will require the establishment and strengthening of learning networks and opportunities for exchange from both North to South and South to South.  Second, the experts argued that political support must be garnered through strengthened advocacy for ECD.  Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn stressed the critical need to place ECD on the global agenda as an imperative issue—one of economic stability and one that should be front and center on the Post-2015 agenda.  Dr. Levy brought important insights from the Latin America region, highlighting the relatively high levels of government spending on the aging population as opposed to the future generation (a perverse outcome given the high payoff for equity and the productivity of investing early).  Third, panelists highlighted the need for more innovative thinking when it comes to both the finance and delivery of quality ECD services.  Robert Dugger of Ready Nation, an organization that supports research and mobilizes business leaders to support early childhood in the United States, described the important role of the private sector in supporting ECD.  He brought insights from U.S. experiences of social impact investing for ECD that could be replicated in China and other countries.  Finally, there was some discussion about the importance of gathering data related to ECD outcomes and quality.  Chen Chunming from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Education in China, Jiang Jin, respectively described important nutrition and education interventions in China and the useful lessons learned from collecting data on the outcomes resulting from these interventions.  To be able to track progress on child development and monitor the quality of services, collecting data is crucial.

From the moving speeches of the stateswomen, to the striking numbers quoted by the researchers and the success stories shared by hard-working government officials, there was little doubt as the event came to a close that what happens in early childhood greatly shapes a child’s life chances as well as the productivity potential of communities, countries and the world as a whole.  It is time for global and national leaders to put ECD in the place it deserves to be—high on the list of priority investments.  The Center for Universal Education will be focusing on some of the important issues raised at this event, hoping to make strides to improve the situation of young children and future generations around the world. Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts in which we will continue to discuss the future of ECD and delve deeper into some of these issues as we explore the potential for moving this agenda forward.