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Investing in Early Childhood: An Ethical Obligation with Safe Returns

by Nohora Alvarado

International studies conducted in recent years show that children who suffer delays in their cognitive and non-cognitive development or nutritional status before the age of five have poorer performance once they begin school and lower income as adults. The reason is that during early childhood, the human brain grows more than at any other stage of life, reaching 80 percent of adult size within the first three years and 90 percent within five years, which explains why learning comes so easily to children in those first few years.

We know that investments in early childhood offer greater yield than any other investment made later in life, with estimated rates of return between 15 and 17 percent. This means more education, better jobs, higher wages for children in the future, and in the long term, increased productivity.

Paraguay has a population of approximately 775,000 children under the age of five, with roughly half qualifying as poor and one quarter living in extreme poverty. It’s estimated that about 14 percent of these children will suffer from stunted growth associated with malnutrition, which makes it likely that there will be significant delays in their cognitive and psychosocial development.

The poverty seen in the homes where these children grow up is associated with poorly-educated mothers, teen parents, malnutrition, low birth weight, unsafe neighborhoods, and lack of stimulation in the home. These circumstances, recognized as risk factors affecting children’s physical and mental development, particularly during the first years of life, place those born in low socioeconomic status homes at a disadvantage. Additionally, they lack access to adequate child development services.

The IDB has been supporting several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Paraguay, by funding early childhood programs that aim to address this challenge. In Paraguay, the Ministry of Health and Social Protection and its Division of Comprehensive Child and Adolescent Health Care have designed an Early Childhood Development program, in collaboration with the IDB, which we believe can make a difference in the future of the country’s most disadvantaged children.

Family Health Centers provide the gateway to this program, due to their proximity to families and communities. Additionally, the program aims to establish and strengthen health care network services (mother and child health centers, hospitals and clinics) for the care of children facing problems in their cognitive, emotional and physical development, with the goal of compensating for the lack of these services. Through this program, we can contribute to a brighter future for disadvantaged children and, in the process, promote Paraguay’s further development.

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