The regional challenges to early childhood development (ECD) include the loss of human, social and economic capital to societies resulting from a lack of political and financial investment in the early years of life, and limited understanding of the importance of getting it right for children from the outset. The results later in life can include poor physical and mental health, poor achievement, unemployment and poverty.
Countries across a region that once had strong safety nets for families, including state-funded early education and care for pre-school-aged children, have seen that tradition eroded, leaving millions without adequate services. In Kazakhstan, once characterized by high levels of state provision, pre-school participation fell by two-thirds in the 1990s. While rates have improved since 1999 (increasing by 14 percentage points in Central Asia and 23 percentage points in Central and Eastern Europe), demand for pre-school places far exceeds availability.
There are wide and persistent equity gaps for young children.
The region faces equity gaps in pre-school participation based on income, ethnicity, disability and location. Almost every child in Belarus may be enrolled in early education, for example, but the enrolment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is just 17 per cent.
In Serbia, more than 75 per cent of children from the wealthiest families take part in pre-school education, compared to just 20 per cent of those from the poorest families – a problem that reflects limited pre-school places in poorer communities.
There are similar equity concerns around the health and nutrition of young children. Stunting (with children too short for their age – a sign of poor nutrition that can affect brain development) has been found to be more than three times higher among Roma children in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia than the national average.