Updated 1 year, 3 months ago

Bringing up better babies

JORGE, who is eight, lives with his mother in a crowded, semi-finished house of mud and cement in Canto Grande, a former shantytown on Lima’s eastern outskirts. When he was smaller, he and his mother were beaten by his father, from whom they are now separated. Though she didn’t finish secondary school, Jorge’s mother tries to help him with his homework. But Jorge has learning difficulties, finds it hard to make friends and avoids eye contact when he talks. Meanwhile, across Peru’s capital, in the prosperous district of Miraflores, the Humpty Dumpty private nursery offers 32 hours of training in “early stimulation” for parents of babies for around $100. Many of the children will doubtless go on to top private schools and lucrative careers.  

Inequality starts at birth. Much research from around the world finds that children who are poorly nourished and poorly parented in their earliest years will suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. They will learn less at school and be less productive as adults. So investing in early childhood makes sense on grounds both of fairness and economic efficiency, argues a new study* published by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Yet public spending in the region is skewed away from the very young. Latin American governments spend just 0.4% of GDP on children under six, compared with 1.6% on those aged six to 12, according to the IDB. They typically spend more than seven times as much per person on over-65s as on under-sixes. What is worse, the quality of some of the public services directed at young children is so “dismal”, especially in day care (ie, day nurseries), that “they may harm—rather than help—the children who use them,” the IDB concludes.

On the bright side, the region’s youngest are healthier than they used to be. Over the past 50 years infant mortality fell by 75% or more in 15 of the 17 countries for which there are data. Whereas it took the United States half a century (from 1935 to 1985) to cut infant mortality among African-Americans from 80 to 25 per 1,000 live births, Peru managed the same reduction for its Amerindian population in less than 15 years, from 1995 to 2008. Latin American babies are better fed than in the past, or than those in other developing countries.

The region has been much less good at nurturing the mental and emotional development of its young children, especially those born to poorer and less educated mothers. Governments have expanded day care, mainly with the laudable aim of helping mothers to work outside the home. Brazil and Chile have doubled the proportion of children in day care in the past decade, while in Ecuador it has increased sixfold. Much of the provision is in big new centres, with up to 300 infants. But staff are too few, ill-trained and poorly paid. In Colombia, for example, such centres, which cost $1m each, are no better for children than the very basic community care they replace although their running costs are more than four times higher, according to Norbert Schady, a co-editor and author of the IDB report.

Latin America is also trying to expand pre-primary education, which should help children to learn more when they get to school. Again, quality can vary widely. Ecuador recently allowed researchers from the IDB to assign randomly 15,000 kindergarten pupils to different teachers and track their progress in language and cognitive skills. They found some teachers were twice as effective as others in the same pre-school, says Mr Schady.

Some of the best child-development schemes are the simplest. In a pioneering study in Jamaica, cash-strapped mothers received weekly visits from health workers who gave them basic parenting lessons and encouraged them to play with their babies. Two decades later their children had higher IQs, were better educated, less violent and on average earned 25% more than a control group whose mothers did not receive the visits.

What all this means is that governments need to rethink how they try to help their youngest citizens, especially as public money is tighter now that economic growth has slowed. They will get a much better return from home visits, pre-school and childminders than from big, expensive day-care centres. Above all, they need to focus on quality, through better staff training and supervision. Since such investments are invisible and their benefits will only be felt years later, this may be unattractive to politicians. But future generations of Latin Americans may thank them.

*The Early Years: Child Well-Being and the Role of Public Policy. Edited by Samuel Berlinski and Norbert Schady.

The Economist |