Social Protection Programs and early childhood development: unexplored potential

The rapid growth in social protection programs has been fueled in part by the promise of this approach to reduce poverty, including emerging findings on improved child health and education outcomes. In parallel, early childhood care and development (ECCD) is also gaining wide recognition as a robust and viable approach to building human capital and alleviating poverty. However, there has thus far been relatively little inquiry into the relationship between social protection and early childhood development. The aim of this study, which uses a systematic review methodology, is to address that gap by examining the effects of social protection programs on ECCD outcomes in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). The systematic review approach allows us to draw policy-relevant conclusions about the impact of social protection on ECCD, by: identifying the social protection functions and programs most effective in promoting ECCD; investigating potential linkages between social protection and early childhood education, health, and development and finally, considering which social protection programs can be scaled up to achieve equity in child outcomes, with a focus on the most vulnerable populations.

This report begins with an overview of social protection programs and their increasing importance in the developing world as a tool for poverty reduction. With increased emphasis on these types of programs, it is important to examine their associations with ECCD as another approach to poverty alleviation. Therefore, the report follows with an exploration of early childhood care and its growing interest in the development agenda, as well as a review of the relevant literature on the interactions between these two fields. The report also presents a description of the systematic review methodology employed in this study, with an in-depth analysis of search terms, keywords, and study design.

Following the study protocol, twenty articles were coded as eligible from an initial search that yielded 401 articles. Population, intervention, comparison, outcome, and context (PICOC) criteria were used to screen the articles and determine their eligibility. The 20 articles included in the study represent a range of social protection programs. Heterogeneity was noted on the following dimensions: location; modality (program target and mechanism); outcome group (age, gender); outcome type (health, education, development); and evaluation methodology (type of comparison, timing of measurement). The implications for scale-up are clear. In any program, there needs to be explicit targeting of ECCD outcomes in order to measure and evaluate these effects. Programs must be generated considering applicability across contexts, with a clear theory of change, and include early and ongoing evaluation with a phased scale-up.

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