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Latin America: Kids on Early Childhood Development Programs Looking to Brighter Future

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WASHINGTON DC, February 23, 2011 - The age-old question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is beginning to have a more truthful ring to it for children in Latin America benefiting from Early Childhood Development programs (ECD).

Since its launch early last year in partnership with Shakira's ALAS, the World Bank's "Early Childhood Initiative: An Investment for Life" has rekindled hope for the future in half a million kids, whose dreams of becoming engineers, doctors, teachers, scientists and even their nations' presidents , have a better chance of turning out a reality.

They're not alone in aspiring to a better future: they can count on powerful allies such as pop superstar and children advocate Shakira.

"I've been dreaming for many years of a better world. I'm convinced we can only achieve this by investing in children and giving them the chance to improve their lives," said the world renowned artist and ALAS founder.

The $300 million joint initiative has not only provided early childhood development services to vulnerable kids but also set in motion fundamental policy changes and attitudes in the public sphere.

This week Colombia became the first country in the region to turn the promise of a better future for millions of local children into national policy.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced 56 billion Colombian pesos in funding for the early childhood initiative 'De Cero a Siempre' (from Zero to Ever) meant to improve the wellbeing of more than 1 million Colombian kids over the next four years.

Santos acknowledged the World Bank's input into Colombia's strategy and thanked country director Gloria Grandolini for her leadership in this project. The Bank has provided its global expertise in ECD programs and technical support to Colombia's endeavor.

Top officials at the multilateral are also pleased with the initiative's preliminary results in terms of policy, programs and services.

"We look forward to continue working closely with ALAS and Shakira to expand the initiative to more countries in the region in the months and years to come," said World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick.

Early Childhood Development policies and programs provide nutrition, healthcare and stimulating environments to infants from birth through 6 years of age –a period of development crucial for achieving a child's full potential.

The project, launched in February of 2010 by World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick, artist and children's advocate Shakira Mebarak, aims to mobilize all sectors of society towards the implementation of comprehensive, well-articulated, and efficient ECD policies and programs to equalize opportunities for low income children early in life.

World Bank research on cognitive development in the region, suggests that overall development outcomes in children are low and determined by their socioeconomic status, due in large part to the mother's education and income level.

It's easy to see why policy makers in Colombia and across Latin America are looking at ECD programs as a panacea against poverty and a safe road to achieving sustained growth and competitiveness in the region's economies.

Experts say that stakeholders have become increasingly aware of the critical importance of an education system that not only enables all children to learn effectively but also produces the type of human capital needed for continued growth and competitiveness, said World Bank senior education specialist Raja Kattan.

"Therefore, interventions in early childhood have been identified as a key lever to promote human capital development and form a critical component of our support," Kattan said.

Over the last 20 years, the World Bank has been helping governments from over 50 countries invest in Early Childhood Development. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Bank has financed over 30 ECD projects, including technical assistance, research and program funding. At present, private and public investments in ECD initiatives range from less than 1 percent to roughly 12 percent of the total educational expenditures of countries in the region, according to World Bank estimates.

ECD initiatives in the region include:

Mexico: One of the largest programs in the region, Educación Inicial reaches an estimated 400,000 children and their parents in remote communities throughout Mexico. The World Bank Compensatory Education Project under the Early Childhood Initiative aims to help increase the breadth of the program to include 172 of the poorest and hardest to reach municipalities in thecountry.

Brazil: To inform municipal and federal decision makers about how and where to best expand early child education programs, the World Bank supports Brazil with the following analytical work: i) a detailed mapping of which groups currently have access across the country, ii) a menu of practices in providing ECD throughout Brazil, and iii) rigorous evaluation of innovative early child education programs such as Primeira Infância Completa in Rio de Janeiro.

Colombia: As part of the technical support to the Government of Colombia, current ECD services and delivery mechanisms are being assessed to identify strengths and weaknesses and to increase coverage, quality, financing, and intersectoral coordination. Global best practices are also being revised comparing the most innovative a range of institutional arrangements and program experiences relevant to Colombia. Also, the Bank will provide technical assistance to the newly created ECD Commission in the operationalization of the newly developed ECD Action Plan.

Jamaica: The World Bank is co-financing the implementation of Jamaica's National Strategic Plan for ECD. The Plan aims to improve the monitoring of children's development, the screening of household-level risks, and the referral systems for early interventions. The Plan also enhances the quality of early childhood schools and care facilities, as well as strengthens early childhood organizations and institutions.

Bolivia: To strengthen the Ministry of Labor's efforts of promoting employment opportunities in Bolivia, the World Bank is supporting the implementation of a youth employment program: Mi Primer Empleo Digno. The program targets young people living in poverty and provides them with training and private sector internships in a variety of specializations. With support of the Early Childhood Initiative the program provides young mothers with the option to enroll their children in public childcare centers.