Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

#WDR2018 Reality Check #16: Early Childhood Education, Poverty and Privatization: Why is ECE so important and underfunded in World Bank policy? By Carol Anne Spreen

written by: Carol Anne Spreen published 2018-02-27 updated 2018-05-29

Learning does not begin when a child enters school. It is widely known that from birth to age five the brain develops more rapidly than at any other stage of life, and it is also most sensitive to influences from the external environment (such as cognitive stimulation, language development, care, imagination but also negative influences like hunger and violence). Children raised in households with protracted poverty, who are orphaned, or have limited access to resources and services, start their formal schooling many steps behind their peers. Healthy, stable, enriching early development opportunities affect later cognitive, social and emotional growth, and with increased opportunities there are greater chances for children to thrive.

A significant part of the World Development Report (WDR) report pays attention to the important links between child development, neuro-science, and issues of poverty (see for example Spotlight 1 and 2), and is generally in-line with the current research and thinking about child well-being and the creation of learning opportunities at an early age. However, the underlying logic of the World Bank (WB)’s approach to learning can be seen in the continued reliance on market rhetoric in the WDR report (e.g. education as an investment, ‘the poverty deficit’, ‘skills beget skills’ and aiming at ‘higher learning trajectories’.

By hanging on to the idea that education (even ECE) should primarily be about improving testing and accountability, the WDR misses the opportunity to create a more holistic approach to learning and thinking about human development throughout the span of a person’s life. To prioritize investing in testing and accountability measures over ECE or poverty alleviation, seems to be putting the proverbial ‘cart before the horse’. The importance of ECE is not just about improving learning outcomes but about its long term potential to help us thrive as human beings.

Furthermore, critics of the report are concerned that the WDR seems to largely bypass the issue of public support and provisioning of education, particularly under-resourced and largely private sectors like ECE. Despite widespread recognition of its importance, the WDR does not indicate whether and how ECE should be funded. The elaborate discussion of the benefits of ECE, especially for children from poor communities, ends with no policy recommendations about funding or creating universal ECE programs.

The WB’s failure to promote government funding, support and expansion of this critical sector

Despite the WB’s recognition of the importance of ECE, it has continuously promoted privatization policies[1] that undermine equity and give governments a pass on providing important and necessary services (like ECE) for the poor.

The WB is an increasingly influential, yet unaccountable, actor, partner, entrepreneur, and enabler of processes connected to a growing market for private education services. For example, in India there is strong WB support for privately run early-childhood education centers, despite overwhelming evidence that these schools drain students and resources from public systems that could be strengthened, add additional barriers to girls and poor families, and make their profits by cutting corners (such as paying very low wages to teachers) at the expense of students' wellbeing[2].

Similarly, there is increasing evidence that other manifestations of privatization that the World Bank supports such as Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), tuition grants and voucher systems, often exacerbate rather than reduce inequalities – reducing inequality should be one of the Bank’s priorities.

Beginning in 2000 the World Bank (among other organizations) started touting ‘private schools for the poor’, as the remedy to poor quality government schools. The motives and goals of this hugely profitable industry have been well documented elsewhere (see for instance, “Worlds of Education” Special issue on Privatization), but one rapidly growing sector is for-profit ECE. As shown in our research, “Profiting from the Poor[3], this sector is unregulated - preschools do not have to meet rigorous standards or government regulations in terms of adequate infrastructure, safety and health regulations, teacher qualifications or salaries – making it ripe for profit-making.

The sector also has high potential for growth; the preschool education market in India could potentially serve nearly 800 million children. The table below shows projected enrollments and ‘scalability’ of one of these fee-based preschool enterprise chains.

Source: https://www.slideshare.net/NaveenKumar95/sudiksha-knowledge-solutions-9675111/10

The World Bank should promote early childhood education as a right, but also a good government investment.

State interventions in ECE are absolutely necessary to balance the playing field – not just in terms of providing ECE for all, but through effective provision of school meals, links to community health programs, and the introduction of subsidies in other services (like transportation). Access to high quality ECE services is not only the fulfillment of a right, investing in ECE is a responsibility of government. This view is in line with  the Sustainable Development Goals, as indicator 4.2.5 of target 4.2 measuresthe number of years of (i) free and (ii) compulsory pre-primary education guaranteed in legal frameworks.

In most OECD countries, public-sector finance is the main type of investment in ECE services. In all OECD countries (except South Korea), investment in childcare and pre-school services for children is made by the public sector, although parents often share some of the cost.[4] Yet, while 1% of GDP is considered the minimum investment for quality early childhood care and education, low and lower middle income countries spent only 0.08% of GDP on ECE in 2014.[5] And only 1% of total overseas development assistance for education (in 2014) was allocated to early childhood development.[6]

Due to fiscal constraints many governments of the majority world still depend mainly on families, international and local NGOs, and private-sector support to provide childcare centers and preschools. Many policy makers in these countries still underestimate the importance of investing in children before compulsory schooling. As a result, ECE tends to lack adequate infrastructure. Schools are run by low-wage, unqualified (usually female) teachers lacking any training or certification. Sub-standard facilities and poor working conditions of ECE educators have been an issue of contention. ECE programs usually also lack national standards, and program quality is rarely monitored. Unless national budgets and international donor aid for early childhood services are expanded significantly, and soon, the social, emotional and cognitive development of children entering schools in most of the world will be unnecessarily stunted.

Even if one were to turn the World Bank’s market logic back on itself, it could be argued that government financing of ECE is not only a duty but is also a good investment. Spurred on by the recent SDG discussions and advocacy from various civil society organisations,  even leading world economists and finance ministers now rank ECE as the number one national investment in terms of getting a return on investment.[7]

Contributing to the learning crisis

To sum up, the WDR 2018 continues to promote ideas and policies that see education as a marketplace and investment - further exacerbating inequality and placing the duty and obligation of ‘realizing education’s promise’ squarely on the backs of families and children, thereby undermining public education and universal early childhood education as a human right.

The WB’s commitment to what it calls the learning agenda is not in service of fulfilling universal human rights if its focus is still on addressing learning and skills through market demands, rather than children’s broader learning and developmental needs. In fact, by promoting initiatives aimed at reduced investment in the public sector, the WB has largely contributed to the learning crisis.

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report,Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at [email protected]. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Pat Forward: #WDR2018 Reality Check #15: Technical and vocational education and training – realising the potential to transform the lives of millions

[1]Klees, S. J., Samoff, J., & Stromquist, N. P. (Eds.). (2012). The World Bank and education: Critiques and alternatives (Vol. 14). Springer.

[2]Spreen, CA. and Kamat, S (2017) Profiting from the Poor: the Emergence of Multinational Edu-Businesses in Hyderabad India. (Forthcoming in Global Handbook of Education Reform, edited by Ken Saltzman: Wiley Press)


[4]UNESCO (2006) Global Monitoring Report 2007: Strong Foundations, Early childhood care and education. UNESCO: Paris.

[5]Results for Development (2016). Financing Early Childhood Development: An Analysis of International and Domestic Sources In Low- and Middle Income Countries. Vol I. p. 20.

[6]  International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (2016). The Learning Generation: Investing in education for  a changing world. p. 112.

[7]Vargas-Baron & Williams, S. (2015). Funding the Future: Strategies for Early Childhood Investment, Costing and Financing. Coordinators’Notebook, No 30, 2008. The Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development. p. 3.