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Assessment of the context

Understanding the context in which children grow up helps in understanding what causes their needs, how to define the particular objectives of the program, and how to adopt the best approaches to complement existing initiatives.

It is important to note that disaggregated data should be used whenever possible. For example, it is likely that wealthy and well-educated women enjoy a different status than poor or less educated women. Mothers and children in rural areas might have different access to health care than mothers and children living in urban areas. Often, substantial differences arise across regions or provinces in a country, and similarly, child care and child rearing practices are likely to be different for different social or ethnic groups. Disaggregation of the data can point out to within-country differences. In turn, they might provide an explanation of differences in child development status of children.

Demographic context: Population distribution and change by age levels

Of particular interest for Early Child Development (ECD) planning and programming purposes are estimates of the total population under 6 years of age. The population figures provide a general idea of dependency ratios; the higher the ratio, the more difficult it is for parents to give individual attention to children.


  • Population by age group over time (to show trends and shifts in age structure)
  • Annual population growth rate
  • Fertility rates over time
  • Annual number of births
  • Life expectancy at birth
  • Dependency ratio

Economic context: Income and employment

Income influences the immediate ability of families to provide for the basic needs of family members, including young children. Extreme poverty creates conditions in which all adults in the family must work outside the home. Poverty also means that parents cannot afford to pay for alternative care. Thus, alternative care is sought within the family. If siblings are called upon to provide care, they may have to leave school prematurely and the quality of the care may be lower. Studies show that the factor most affecting whether a family escapes from, or returns to, a condition of extreme poverty is employment of family members. Securing employment may help the family earn more income to survive, leaving the classification of extreme poverty, but this process may be detrimental to the child's psychosocial development.


  • Gross National Product (GNP) per capita
  • Income distribution and inequality (for example, the income of the richest 20% of the population compared to the poorest 40%, GINI-coefficient, Lorenz-curve)
  • Number and % of people living in (absolute) poverty
  • Number and % of children living in (absolute) poverty
  • Employment (formal vs. informal, public vs. private, by sector such as agriculture, services, production, labor force participation rate, unemployment rate)
  • Number of radio and TV sets per thousand population (as a proxy)

Literacy and education levels and distribution

Literacy and schooling levels, especially of mothers, are known to affect the style and goals of child care. Moreover, the educational climate in a family (defined as the average number of years of education in the household for members 15 years of age or older), has been shown to be related to the performance of children in school. It is highly likely that it is also related to a child’s intellectual development. In addition, low levels of literacy and education may affect to whom projects are directed and what kinds of materials are provided to participants.


  • Coverage, access and use of primary education
  • Gross and net enrollment rates in primary, middle, secondary, tertiary education
  • School completion rates, transition rates, repetition rates, drop-out rates
  • Reasons for not being enrolled in primary school, causes of retention and dropout
  • Literacy rates by gender, urban/rural, income level.

Social / ethnic / cultural context and child care practices

The goals of child development, and the value and belief systems that affect child care practices are likely to vary according to class and ethnic origin. The larger the indigenous population in a country, and the greater the cultural variations, the greater the challenge for project managers and others involved in developing a project to understand and respond to variation in value and belief systems and related child care practices.


  • Social/ethnic distribution of the population (i.e. castes, indigenous population, tribes, social stratification, immigrant population, different ethnic groups etc.)
  • Languages spoken (at home, in school, official language)
  • Child care practices: are children cared for by the family, by the community, mother, siblings, or are they enrolled in child care centers?
  • Child rearing practices, beliefs and values regarding healthy child development
  • Expectations of parents regarding education of their male and female children respectively

Family patterns

If a family is "extended," including grandparents or other relatives within the same household, it is more likely that a child can be cared for within the home and by the family. This may affect demand for alternative care, but also the quality of care. In nuclear families, care at home becomes more difficult and is often related to the level of poverty of a particular family. In cases of extreme poverty and in the higher income ranges, the chances that the mother as well as the father will work outside the home increase. And in one-parent households, care at home is even more difficult. The literature seems to show that, in general, the condition of children in one-parent households is more precarious than in other family settings.


  • Composition of the family (nuclear or extended) and trends
  • Dependency ratios (number of children and people of old age per adult in the household)
  • Head of the household: number of female vs. male headed household, number of child headed households
  • Average number of children per household

The role and status of women

The role and status of women refers to their social status and discrimination. The health status of women is directly relevant to the health and nutritional status of infants. Studies have shown that mothers' education influences child development. Employment of women is likely to increase the demand for child care centers (in absence of extended families that care for the child).

General indicators:

  • To what extent does the particular context see the woman’s place as in the home?
  • What is women’s role and position in the family, social, political and public arena?
  • Are girl children treated differently?
  • Median age at marriage
  • Median age at first pregnancy
  • Teenage pregnancy rate

Health indicators:

  • Prevalence of anemia among adolescent girls and pregnant women
  • Malnutrition among pregnant and nursing women
  • Access to pre- and post-natal care
  • Maternal mortality rate (number of maternal deaths per thousand births): What are the level and main causes of maternal mortality?
  • % of births attended by trained health personnel
  • Breastfeeding practices
  • Number of pregnant women infected with HIV/AIDS
  • % of pregnant women immunized against tetanus
  • Use of contraceptives

Education and employment indicators:

  • Literacy of women (and comparison with male literacy)
  • Average years of schooling completed (and comparison with male school completion)
  • Female labor force participation: What % of women work outside the home in paid employment? In what kind of jobs?
  • What is the level of (unmet) demand for child care?

Health infrastructure

This section concentrates on the general levels of coverage of different services that directly affect the development of young children. The greater the coverage of particular services, the greater the possibility of integrating them into an ECD program and the less one needs to be concerned with installing new services. This information comes back into play when choosing the particular locations in which a project is to be implemented and when alternative delivery systems are being considered. Meanwhile, the initial consultation with stakeholders should produce basic information about existing programs and projects.

General health indicators:

  • Access to health facilities: proximity in distance and travel time
  • Number of various facilities by region (primary health care center, hospitals, etc.)
  • Number of doctors and nurses per population by region
  • Availability of health programs for pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, young children
  • Availability of family planning services
  • HIV/AIDS prevention policies
  • Access to safe water and sanitation

Political and institutional context

  • Government structure and broad policies of operation (e.g., decentralization vs. centrism, state companies vs. privatization)
  • Ministries and their respective responsibilities, in particular regarding child health, education, early childhood development and care, women and the family
  • Policies, laws and regulations regarding children, their rights, their health, their education, child care facilities etc. (e.g. responsibility of government vis-a-vis families; education: is pre-school obligatory; health: is there a commitment to certain targets such as 90% immunization)
  • % of the education budget allocated to early childhood development
  • % of health budget allocated to young children and pregnant/nursing women

Rural-urban and agricultural migration patterns

In the case of ECD projects, migration may turn out to be a particularly important variable. Migration can affect patterns of family organization and care because: 1) Immediate families get split up (either fathers or mothers migrate alone to seek employment in urban areas); 2) Extended families get split up (so that grandmothers or mothers-in-law are not in a position to help care for children or to show their daughters and sons how to provide care); 3) Temporary migration for work by families sometimes creates special situations (groups of migrant workers) where special kinds of projects are required; 4) The displacement of rural families to cities often requires difficult adjustments in traditional forms of child care which may have a negative effect on children's development and; 5) Marginal urban communities with migrants from many other areas lack a common tradition and solidarity, making it more difficult to work in a collaborative and participatory way at the community level.