Start Thinking About Care – Even Before Birth

Economist Orazio Attanasio of the University College London (UCL) received the 2016 Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for his use of economic models and field experiments to assess and shape early child development programs and policies in low income countries.

In an interview with the Jacobs Foundation, Attanasio explains why parenting is important, why financial aid might not be enough and stresses the importance to invest in early child development – possibly even before the child is born.

What does the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize mean to you?

I am extremely honoured to receive such a prestigious prize. Looking at the list of previous recipients, I see many outstanding researchers whose work I admire. Being in that group is an amazing achievement for me. And of course it constitutes a huge incentive to continue with my research.

How can the Prize help you with your future research?

The prize will give me and my collaborators the possibility of extending some of the work we are doing in India in a fundamental way: we will combine an intervention that has targeted children aged 1 to 3 with a new one that will follow the same children until school age. This will probably be the first study that will be able to identify the separate effects of two interventions at different development stages of the same child and the possible complementarities the interventions have. The outcome of the study will be relevant to find out when to start interventions and how sustainable is the impact of the interventions in the early years if complemented by further interventions.

You suggest parents should invest more time and material in their children. And your Colombian research on home visits shows that this type of parental investment has positive effects on their children’s development e.g. their skills and abilities. Other research stresses the financial situation of families and suggests that financial aid may make a difference. Is this a contradiction?

Financial circumstances matter in many ways. It is not only the fact that financial resources make certain investments feasible; it is also the fact that parents who constantly worry about making ends meet might not have the time or mental capacity to devote enough quality time to children. So the two pieces of evidence are not in contradiction. We think, however, that financial aid might not be enough if poor parents, for a variety of different reasons, do not have adequate parenting practices. This is particularly the case for the early years. 

You are currently running a study on early childhood development in India which relates to the design of your Colombian study?

The study we are currently running in the Indian state of Odisha is a direct development of our early year intervention in Colombia, but it is much larger and more ambitious. Both studies focus on early stimulation, emphasize using local resources to deliver the intervention, and have a potential for being developed at scale. But in India we use new approaches, such as the delivery of the stimulation intervention in a group rather than home-setting. Additionally we highlight the importance of supervision, which is one of the lessons we learned in Colombia.

Do your findings from low- and middle income countries stand for these countries only or do they have a “universal” dimension which could hold true for high income countries as well?

Our approach to research is to understand the mechanisms through which certain interventions achieve certain impacts (or not!). This approach allows us to extrapolate across contexts. We are now exploring, for instance, the possibility of implementing interventions similar to those we have done in Colombia and India in deprived neighbourhoods in England.

What ECEC policies would you like to see implemented in low- and middle income countries because of your research? And what about high income countries?

I think it is important to start thinking about early childhood education and care in the very early years, possibly even before birth. It is important to focus on parental behaviour starting with appropriate nutrition during pregnancy, breastfeeding and, soon enough, stimulation. Stimulation and high quality care needs to continue in the day-care centres for children aged 3 or older. Our research in Colombia shows that the quality of centre based care is likely to depend more on processes (care givers interactions with children) than structures. In other words, it might be more important for a child to have a direct, personalised and warm relation with a care giver than being in a new and shiny building together with hundreds of other children. Some of these lessons are likely to hold in high-income countries as well.