Worlds of Education

Credit: GPE/Carolina Valenzuela
Credit: GPE/Carolina Valenzuela

#WDR2018 Reality Check #19: Early Childhood in the WDR 2018: Acknowledged, but Still Rooted in Western-Centric and Economically-Focused Thinking by Helge Wasmuth and Elena Nitecki

published 20 March 2018 updated 24 April 2018
written by:

The World Development Report (WDR) recognizes the importance of the formative years, which is a positive step toward addressing many problems facing children and families. It was refreshing to read that issues like poverty, malnutrition, pre- and post-natal care, and parent education (pp. 9, 21, 112) are acknowledged as powerful influences in early childhood and that “education can’t do it alone” (p. 44). As other authors have pointed out, the WDR is in line with the current research about children’s well-being and learning – but all of this is rooted in a singular way of thinking about Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). The report’s perspective is reflective of the dominant, Western-centric and economically-focused discourse. Voices that have challenged this perspective and its limitations are missing and thus reducing what is supposed to be a “world” report to a reductive account of Western thinking. Such narrowness, together with the striking absence of a vision of what ECEC actually means, compromises the report’s recognition of the critical early years.

Early Childhood Perspectives are Dominated by Western Thinking

Currently, much of the research, theory, policy, and practices in ECEC are rooted in Western thinking, specifically focusing on child development, child psychology, and scientific means to assess and measure young children. Children and their development are generally viewed as universal, while the local contexts and environments in which they are raised are minimally valued. In many aspects, the WBR mirrors this dominant discourse.

The insights of Western theorists, of course, are important and have helped practitioners worldwide to improve their work. However, the concern is the perpetual reliance on these theories as the only frame of reference. The report strengthens the primacy of this theoretical perspective. Further, the fact that no alternative thinking is presented leads one to assume that the discourse is unquestioned. Even in the Western world, many scholars and practitioners have started to question this dominance (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 2007), which is documented in the impressive work of Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education(RECE), an international organization that represents a wide range of perspectives on early childhood (Bloch, Swadener, & Canella, 2014). The report does not acknowledge such voices and as criticized elsewhere, there is no reference to alternative thinking outside of the Western world. Alternative views of ECEC have much to contribute, especially when applied in an international context. Instead, countries around the world continue to be colonized by Western theories, which has proven difficult and inappropriate. The report will only strengthen the dominance of a Western-based theoretical perspective.

The Limitations of “Investing” in Early Childhood

One aspect of Western thinking that is especially pervasive is the idea that early childhood is an “investment,” a means to prepare children for life and prevent future social ills. There is ample evidence that the WDR defines Early Childhood in these economic terms, specifically as a worthwhile investment and preparation for school readiness. The report reinforces the result of such an economically-focused perspective – that ECEC has no intrinsic value of its own, nor do children have a right to childhood.

Thus, the value of ECEC is described in the report as follows: “Children’s early years offer a rare window for societies to make investments in their children with extremely high returns” (p. 112). Governments should “promote day-care centers for very young children and preschool programs for children 3–6 years old [...] to improve cognitive and socioemotional skills in the short run, as well as education and labor market outcomes later in life” (p. 21). These arguments can be summarized as Human Capital Theory (HCT), or what Peter Moss describes as the “story of quality and high returns” (2014, 19). This way of framing ECEC  has become attractive for policy makers worldwide (Moss, 2014; Penn, 2010). High-quality ECEC, as the rhetoric states, is viewed as “an investment in human capital that will lead to innumerable societal gains and strong economic returns in form of reduced cost for social and educational remediation and a more productive workforce” (Nagasawa, Peters, & Swadener, 2014, p. 284). The report argues similarly: Especially “at-risk children” would benefit from early childhood interventions “well beyond their early years: their school performance, employment, income, overall welfare, and social integration all improved” (p. 114).

Relying on such thinking, it is no surprise that the report sees the main, if not the only, purpose of ECEC as school readiness: “Early childhood education prepares young children for school” (p. 116). Investment, especially in young children at risk, is necessary because too often children “arrive in school unprepared to learn” (p. 9). Although the report casts blame on ECEC, it does acknowledge other contributing factors, such as malnutrition, illness, and low parental involvement. However, the primary emphasis is undoubtedly stressing ECEC as a means to school readiness and an investment in the future.

A Vision of What Early Childhood Means - for Everyone

What is further striking is the absence of a vision of what ECEC actually means; of the variety of ways that young children construct their worlds and how they give meaning to the world in which they live in order to form their own selves. Play as the appropriate means of such a process is only mentioned in two contexts (pp. 69 and 116), for example by acknowledging that “key elements of programs that have led to strong preschool outcomes include curriculums that foster crucial pre-academic abilities (emotional security, curiosity, language, self-regulation) through play” (p. 116). It is notable that the importance of play is mentioned, however, what is missing is the assertion that play is the primary means of young children’s learning and the perspective that a child’s learning and education can take many forms. This is especially concerning if one considers the reality in many ECEC settings worldwide – much of which can be attributed to misguided applications of HCT, as reinforced in the World Bank’s work. ECEC settings have become a highly-structured, standardized, and measured preparation for later schooling, its “schoolification” is already reality in countries worldwide. ECEC is turning into a “trivialised idea of learning and knowledge” (Olsson, 2013). Certainly, the report mentions that “overly academic and structured programs for children under 5 may undermine their cognitive and socioemotional skills” (p. 116) and further recognizes the importance of play, but will the report be understood this way when the economically-focused framing of ECEC is unquestioned? The report will likely reinforce the false dichotomy between play and learning that currently exists. Its unquestioned adherence to ideas of school readiness will lead to more academic teaching and learning, even though this is already happening with disastrous consequences. Too often, play is erroneously portrayed as directly oppositional to a more ‘worthy’ academic counterpart or high expectations. However, learning and play are not contradictory; learning clearly does occur during play. Play is young children’s means of learning. The reports lacks a strong support of such a thinking, which is worrisome.

It is positive that the WDR acknowledges the significance of the early years and many of the contributing influences in a child’s life. However, the very foundation of ECEC remains unquestioned. The report reinforces dominant Western theories of child development and child psychology that are not applicable worldwide. Applications of HCT, which essentially frame ECEC as a commodity worthy of investment, have warped ECEC into a place of preparation that robs children of play and a right to childhood. This should be of concern for everyone advocating for young children and their right to childhood. If the WDR is intended for international application, the dominance of Western, economically-motivated perspectives should be questioned.


Bloch, M., Swadener, B. & Cannella, G. (eds). (2014). Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care & Education. Critical Questions, New Imaginaries and Social Activism: A Reader. New York, Bern, Berlin, Vruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Dahlberg, G., Moss, P., & Pence, A. (2007). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Languages of evaluation(2nd Ed.). London: Falmer Press.

Moss, P. (2014). Transformative change and real utopias in early childhood education: A story of democracy, experimentation, and potentiality. New York: Routledge.

Nagasawa, M., Peters, L., & Swadener (2014). The costs of putting quality first: Neoliberalism, (in)equality, (un)affordability, and (in)accessibility. In: Bloch, M., Swadener, B. & Cannella, G. (eds). (2014). Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Care & Education. Critical Questions, New Imaginaries and Social Activism: A Reader. New York, Bern, Berlin, Vruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. pp.279-290

Olsson, L.M. (2013). Taking Children’s Questions Seriously: The need for creative thought. Global Studies of Childhood 3(3). 230-253.

Penn, H. (2010). Shaping the future: how human capital arguments about investment in early childhood are being (mis)used in poor countries. In: Yelland, N. (Ed.) (2010). Contemporary perspectives on early childhood education. pp. 49-65. New York: Open University Press

Elena Nitecki and Helge Wasmuth are both founding members of  Cultures of Early Childhood Education and Care (CECEC), an international research network. Their recent publications include:

Wasmuth, H., & Nitecki, E. (2017). GERM Policies in Early Childhood: Infecting our Youngest Citizens and Threatening the Right to Education. Network for international policies and cooperation in education and training (NORRAG). http://www.norrag.org/germ-policies-early-childhood-infecting-youngest-citizens-threatening-right-education-helge-wasmuth-elena-nitecki/

Nitecki, E., & Wasmuth, H. (2017). Global trends in early childhood practice: Working within the limitations of the global education reform movement. Global Education Review, 4(3), 1-13. http://ger.mercy.edu/index.php/ger/article/view/414

Wasmuth, H., & Nitecki, E., (2017). Global early childhood policies: The impact of the global education reform movement and possibilities for reconceptualization. Global Education Review, 4(2), 1-17. http://ger.mercy.edu/index.php/ger/article/view/383

#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 Hyunsu Hwang: #WDR2018 Reality Check #18: “Behind the Scores; Myths on Korean education”

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.