Social Entrepreneurs Offer New Thinking on Old Challenges in Early Childhood

This blog post is adapted from a piece on the Huffington Post

Co-Author: Dana Charles McCoy

For more than half a century, advocates of early childhood development have worked tirelessly to inform parents and policymakers about the importance of children's early years. This work appears to have paid off: enrollment in publicly-funded pre-k programming has nearly doubled since 2002, and a recently released poll indicates that nearly 9 in 10 likely voters in the United States agree that “the years from birth to 5 are extremely or very important to the learning and development of a child.” Early childhood development and education issues are now a key component of the United Nation’s international development agenda, with advocates citing young children as the “common basis for all dimensions of sustainable development.”

Innovation and the Role of Social Entrepreneurs

Some in the early childhood community have responded to this growing consensus with an increased focus on using innovation to drive more effective policies and programs. “We can and need to do better,” says Jack Shonkoff, M.D., director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. To achieve greater impact for children, says Dr. Shonkoff, “we must think beyond the status quo and provide greater support for the rapid-cycle sharing, iteration, and learning from failure that drive breakthrough change in other fields.” A growing number of early childhood scholars, policymakers, and practitioners are heeding this call, experimenting with novel, innovative approaches for funding early childhood services, building caregivers’ skills, and identifying children at risk for adversity.

Innovation fever – and the potential funding that comes with it – has attracted a new generation of social entrepreneurs. Drawing on business principles and wide-ranging experiences across diverse fields, social entrepreneurs create flexible, self-sustaining (and sometimes even profitable) enterprises for which the bottom line is social change rather than dollars and cents. Over the last decade, social entrepreneurs have offered game-changing approaches to finance, education, energy, and health.

Social entrepreneurs are now posed to make a big impact on global early care and education.  In September, a group of students from National Chengchi University were awarded the prestigious $1 million Hult Prize to launch IMPCT- a social investment platform designed to help low-quality childcare providers access the training and materials to substantially improve and expand their services. A group out of Oxford University is leveraging low cost laundry services to provide parents with training in effective techniques for reading with their young children.  Others social entrepreneurs are developing plans that leverage the growing ubiquity of mobile telephones to expand evidence-based home visiting services, promote stimulating parent-child interactions, or help non-literate parents to engage in daily reading with their children.  

New Ideas Are Not Enough

As innovative entrepreneurial efforts such as these gain momentum, it will be increasingly important to rigorously evaluate their effectiveness and clearly delineate their role in the broader early childhood movement. New ideas will only be helpful if they can both be proven effective relative to existing approaches and integrated into existing social support structures. Whereas social enterprise may be well equipped to drive innovation, ensuring that all children have access to affordable health care, nutritious food, high quality early care and education, and safe, stable communities must remain a shared public responsibility. And although social enterprise is adept at developing and testing new ideas, taking risks, learning from failures, and iterating rapidly, the vast systems run by governments are necessary for achieving impact at scale.

By emphasizing their respective strengths, collaborations between government and social enterprise can benefit larger numbers of disadvantaged children than have been reached until this point. As was summarized by a recent UNICEF report outlining the role of public-private partnerships in supporting education, “[t]his is not an ideological question or a question of favouring one type of provision over another. Rather, it is a question of leveraging the skills and comparative advantage of the public and non-state sectors in a way that enhances the extent and quality of service delivery to the poor.”

Social entrepreneurs bring critical and fresh perspectives on how to support young children and their families that can help to address some of the world’s most stubborn challenges. Nevertheless, even the most clever and innovative entrepreneurial solutions will be of little help in tackling large-scale problems without robust evaluation and social support. In a world that is thirsty for sustainable approaches to ensuring all children’s developmental potential, uniting the experience and resources of government with the innovation and ingenuity of social entrepreneurs may provide a promising recipe for positive change.

Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of Abt Associates.
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