Using impact bonds to achieve early childhood development outcomes in low- and middle-income countries

The confluence of the agreement on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals) in 2015, and the increased attention being paid to the role of non-traditional actors in contributing to shared prosperity, provide a unique opportunity to focus attention on attempts to identify promising new solutions to the barriers that impede the full development of the world’s youngest citizens. Current estimates indicate that 200 million children globally under the age of 5 are at risk of not reaching their development potential. With these goals, the global community has a tremendous opportunity to change the course of history. There is evidence that certain early childhood development (ECD) interventions—spanning the nutrition, health, water and sanitation, education, social protection, and governance sectors from conception to age 5—have high potential to help to achieve the SDGs related to child development. Furthermore, early childhood interventions have been found to improve adult health and education levels, reduce crime, and raise employment rates, which will be paramount to achieving global economic, climate, and physical security.

Impact bonds have the potential to address some of the main financing and delivery constraints faced in ECD. By providing upfront private capital, impact bonds could help to address service provider liquidity constraints and leverage public capital by allowing the government to connect preventive programs with future benefits to individuals, society, and the economy. Impact bonds also have the potential to drive performance management, support monitoring and evaluation, and create accountability, which all help to address quality and capacity constraints. By fostering innovation, experimentation and adaptive learning in service delivery, cost-effective solutions could be identified through impact bonds. By producing evidence of outcome achievement, impact bonds could shift the focus toward effective ECD programs. Finally, collaboration across stakeholders—a necessary component of impact bonds—has the potential to allow for alignment of interests and a win-win situation for investors, outcome funders, and program beneficiaries alike.

The high participation of non-state actors and potentially significant returns in ECD make it a promising sector for impact bonds. Unlike other services that may have entrenched interests, the multitude of agencies and non-state entities financing and providing ECD services potentially allows for more experimentation. The preventive nature of ECD programs also fits well with the core feature of SIBs, which is that preventive investments will result in valuable short- and potentially long-term outcomes. There is evidence that ECD interventions can have immense effects on later-life outcomes. For example, a longitudinal study of a program in Jamaica, in which participants received weekly visits from community health workers over a 2-year period, was found to increase the earnings of participants by 25 percent, 20 years later.

There may, however, be some particular challenges associated with applying impact bonds in the ECD sector. Impact bonds (and other Payment by Results mechanisms tied to outcomes) require meaningful outcomes that are measureable within a timeframe that is reasonable to the outcome funder (and investors in the case of an impact bond). Meaningful outcomes are outcomes that are intrinsically or extrinsically valuable. Intrinsically valuable outcomes that are measureable within a reasonable timeframe could be extrinsically valuable if they are proxies for long-term benefits to individuals, society, or the economy. The delay between ECD interventions and later-life results may prove an impediment in some cases. By identifying appropriate interim measures such as language development, socioemotional development, and schooling outcomes that may proxy for desirable longer-term outcomes, the issue of delay could be mitigated. For example, there is evidence that early stimulation and health programs can have statistically significant effects on schooling outcomes in the short-run. An increase in focus on the intrinsic value of short-term outcomes that result from ECD interventions, such as child survival, is also important.

As the global community moves beyond the Millennium Development Goals to a set of Global Goals and associated targets linked to measurable outcomes, there is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to invest in future generations. Leveraging upfront funding, focusing on outcomes through adaptive learning and testing new ways to deliver early childhood interventions more effectively are all means of achieving the ECD-related goals. Despite the hype around all of the new financing mechanisms, the keys to creating high-quality, locally appropriate programs remains simple—real-time collection of outcome data, the freedom to fail, and the flexibility to course-adjust. In some circumstances social service provision based on outcomes and adaptive learning may require mechanisms like impact bonds or other Payment by Results mechanisms. In other circumstances it may not. As this very nascent field continues to grow, more research will be needed to capture lessons learned, contextualize them within the larger landscape of ECD financing and service provision, and apply them to real-world social challenges with the world’s youngest and most disadvantaged populations at the forefront of the conversation.

Read the previous report on the landscape of impact bonds across sectors and geography »