We are living through one of those rare moments in history when economic evidence and scientific research point in the same direction: investments in early childhood development (ECD) yield high returns all the way to adulthood. The economic evidence, based on rigorous impact evaluations by James Heckman and others, is that children who are read to, attend preschool, and in general are stimulated from birth to age five are more likely to stay in school, perform better and lead healthier and more productive lives as adults. The scientific research, led by Jack Shonkoff, shows how children’s development is particularly receptive to human contact (as opposed to contact with inanimate objects or no contact) during the first five years because this is the period when the brain’s networks are being shaped.
Despite this compelling evidence, a recent book by Safaa El-Kogali and Caroline Krafft shows that investment in ECD by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is among the lowest in the world. In 2011, gross enrollment in pre-primary education stood at 27 percent, half the world rate and below every other region except sub-Saharan Africa. The shortfall is significant for at least two reasons. First, the region has invested heavily in the education of children aged 6 and above, with good results in terms of enrollment and completion rates. But learning outcomes have been disappointing. Indeed, one of the causes of the region’s high unemployment rate is the mismatch between young people’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills and the demands of the workplace. Secondly, the region’s resource-rich countries are trying to diversify their economies, to be better prepared for the post-oil era. Since it is difficult to predict which industries will be profitable 20 or 30 years from now, the key is to have a population that is sufficiently skilled to take advantage of the opportunities available in the future. Investing in ECD, one of the more powerful ways of building the human capital of the next generation, is therefore part of the country’s diversification strategy.
The MENA region is going through a difficult moment in its history, with civil wars, violent extremism, or political turmoil in most countries. Some may think that investing in ECD is not a priority amid such turbulence. But a recent column by Nicholas Kristoff made me think the opposite is true. In the context of the U.S. “education wars” over K-12 education (charter schools, common core curriculum, etc.), Kristoff suggests that early childhood education is something everyone can agree on. Likewise, in the midst of sectarian and other conflicts in the MENA region, perhaps a commitment to early childhood development would be one thing the various factions—all of whom want the best for their children—could come together and make progress on.