Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with officials from the People's Republic of China, made the case for investing in early childhood development Wednesday, saying fostering a child's health, nutrition and brain development could also have a significant effect on a country's economy.
Clinton has long been an advocate of early childhood education, and recently teamed up with the nonprofit group Next Generation to start the Too Small to Fail campaign, which promotes awareness for what the group calls the "word gap" – the phenomenon that by the time a low-income child reaches age 3, he or she has a vocabulary about half the size of that of a child from a wealthier family.
In addition to ensuring all children have access to quality and affordable preschool, Clinton and others argue that parents need to do more to stimulate their children's brain development before they even get to preschool, by reading to them, talking to them, and interacting with them.
Clinton told an audience at the Brookings Institution that parents, educators and policymakers need to focus on "issues that may not be in the headlines, but are in the trend lines."
"Too often we only pay attention to what is on the front pages of the newspapers because those are the crises we have to deal with," Clinton said. "Investing in early childhood development is one of the best returns on investment that a country can make to accelerate long-term economic growth and productivity."
Liu Yandong, vice premier of the People's Republic of China, also shared efforts the Chinese government has been making to improve early childhood development, such as implementing a nutrition improvement program, and building more than 8,000 boarding schools in rural parts of the country.
Yandong said China and the United States "share the same vision" of prioritizing the health and well-being of children.
"This cause of early childhood development is close to both our hearts," Clinton said. "It is true we are both mothers, and maybe that gives us a particular perspective. But it's also because as leaders in our respective nations, we have seen how important it is to tend to our very youngest citizens."
During a panel discussion following Clinton and Yandong's remarks, leaders from other foreign nations weighed in on the issue of early childhood development, and how fostering children's growth early on in life can alleviate some economic and political issues countries have with older citizens.
Santiago Levy, vice president for sectors and knowledge at the Inter-American Development Bank, said the amount of resources many Latin American countries spend on things like the "old age pension of poor people," relative to what they spend on early childhood development is "completely unbalanced."
"You're trying to combat inequality at the end of the life cycle, whereas if you made the investments much earlier, then probably these investments at the end of the life cycle would not need to be done," Levy said.
Likewise, James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, said it is impossible to make up what children potentially miss during their first five years of life.
"If you say you'd like to pick it up from years 6 to 10, it's not possible because the kids are so significantly formed in those first five years," Wolfensohn said. "What worries me the most is the way the demographics are going to change in the world ... I worry particularly about the least developed countries, which are growing at a significant pace at the moment."
Wolfensohn said that in many developing countries, people prioritize basic amenities needed to survive, such as food, instead of education, which is often forgotten. But with such large population growths coming from these countries, there is the potential that a large portion of the world will be under-educated, he said.