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Child development in developing countries

By news editor, on 29 November 2011

Despite some dispiriting statistics, Rob Eagle finds grounds for optimism at a Lunch Hour Lecture about child development on 22 November.

It is no surprise that children from wealthy backgrounds not only develop stronger cognitive skills, but also then become more successful later in life. One need look no further than the politicians from privileged backgrounds who are at the helm of this country’s government.

Long before David Cameron and Nick Clegg went to their private schools and elite universities, they were (presumably) raised in an environment that provided mental stimulation and encouraged education.

By contrast, according to a 2007 study in the Lancet, 200 million children worldwide are at risk of not reaching their full developmental potential, owing to lack of nutrition, risk of infectious diseases and, most importantly, a home environment that fails to stimulate their cognitive growth.

In his Lunch Hour Lecture, Professor Orazio Attanasio (UCL Economics) examined how early childhood development, particularly up to the age of three, can determine a child’s potential to succeed later in life.

While I knew that this type of research is vital to understanding how to improve conditions for children in the developing world, I went into this lecture thinking rather selfishly that the topic could be somewhat depressing. I may not be as privileged as Cameron or Clegg, but I, like most others at UCL, was raised with three square meals a day and a home environment that stimulated me and encouraged me to learn more.

Much to my shamefully selfish relief, this was not a depressing lecture. On the contrary, Professor Attanasio demonstrated how early childhood development is malleable; the children of under-resourced communities in developing countries are not doomed to hopeless futures.

Through a handful of case studies from the Americas, Professor Attanasio emphasised how it is possible to design and implement low-cost ‘interventions’ in local communities to provide vital nutrition and stimulation.

He looked in detail at his recent programme of interventions in Colombia, Familias en Acción, which worked with 1,400 infants from 96 locations. The intervention was implemented on local levels through madres líderes, female community leaders who could work with the mothers to stimulate their children through a curriculum of games, puzzles, books and other materials.

While conclusions of the studies are yet available, Professor Attanasio strongly believes from the anecdotal evidence that these interventions have been successful in helping these infants to develop far further than they would have done without the extra nutrition and stimulation.

At a cost of $500 per year per child, this programme is already affordable and would become even cheaper through economies of scale if implemented across the country. Professor Attanasio now needs the conclusions of the data to propose such a programme to the Colombian government. He is also now building a similar programme of interventions in India.

I left the lecture, not disheartened but with genuine hope that, if governments of developing countries such as Colombia could implement such comprehensive early childhood development programmes in its poorest areas, the gaps between these children and the Camerons and Cleggs of this world could very easily diminish.

Rob Eagle is Multimedia Producer in UCL Communications & Marketing.

Watch Professor Attanasio’s lecture online here:

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