Quantifying Heckman: Are Governments in Eastern and Southern Africa Maximizing Returns on Investments in Early Childhood Development?

Working paper, February 2021


This paper analyzes how much governments and development partners in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) are spending on early childhood development (ECD) services using education and health expenditures as a proxy. The analysis draws inspiration from the seminal work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman (2008), which demonstrates that investments in the early years of life, especially in the first 1,000 days, achieve significantly higher returns than investments made later on.

The main takeaway is that young children in ESA benefit from significantly less public investment than their older counterparts, which is in stark contrast to Heckman’s recommendation. The paper also finds that ECD services are very low government spending priorities, that the majority of ECD spending takes place in the health sector and that the pre-COVID funding gap for key ECD services exceeded 90 percent.

The paper calls on governments to make ECD a key component of COVID-19 recovery plans and to increase investments in early learning, safety, security and care needs of children 0-6 years old. To deliver on this, fiscal policy must become age-sensitive, annual ECD budgets should progressively increase in line with international spending targets, and budget templates and charts of accounts should be reformed to enhance the visibility of ECD in budgets at national and local levels.

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