A turning point for early years investment

UN education envoy Gordon Brown calls on world leaders to invest at least $1 billion in the world’s youngest children as a new Theirworld report reveals UNICEF and the World Bank are leading the way. 

Gordon Brown, the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, has called for world leaders to work together and urgently invest at least $1 billion in children’s early years.

His passionate plea came as new data published by Theirworld shows UNICEF and the World Bank are leading the drive to transform investment in childcare and pre-primary education.

Brown’s comments came at an Act For Early Years event held yesterday by Theirworld, Sesame Workshop and ECDAN (Early Childhood Development Action Network) in Washington, DC. His call for increased investment was echoed by UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell, who named “insufficient public financing” as a major challenge.

Brown called for a global coalition of governments to push through urgent increased investment in the early years. He added: “We know there is no more important issue for the future. The biggest scandal of all is that we are not prepared at the moment to invest sufficient in early childhood development.

“When you invest you get the results. We must invest in the early years. It is non-negotiable. You cannot be serious about education if you are not serious about early childhood education.”

Act For Early Years, a global movement launched by Theirworld to drive action on the under-fives crisis, has a petition calling for leaders to invest at least $1 billion to give every child a fair start.


The Act For Early Years event was held in Washington during the week of the World Bank Spring Meetings. Its aim was to find ways of unlocking new and increased investment in childcare and pre-primary education.

The crucial years between birth and age five are when 90% of a child’s brain development takes place. But only 1.4% of total spending on international education aid went to the early years in 2022 – far below an agreed target of 10%.

UNICEF is one of the few global agencies meeting that goal. UNICEF’s Catherine Russell (pictured above) told the Act For Early Years event: “Millions of children don’t have the most basic needs met. That undermines their development and the development of their communities. Today almost 40% of children under five globally suffer from extreme poverty or stunting.

“These are staggering, eye-opening figures that demand action, especially if we hope to achieve by 2030 the target that all children have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.”

Russell highlighted “insufficient public financing” but said there are clear solutions, including strengthening systems through sufficient levels of investment to reach all children. She added: “There can be no human development without early childhood development.”

Luis Beneviste, Global Director, Education, at the World Bank, said the organisation was currently supporting early years projects in 61 countries with funding of $2.2 billion. He said: “This is double our early childhood education programme of 10 years ago.

“This is a reflection of increasing importance that finance ministers are giving to early childhood investments. We are seeing a very important shift. But the demand is huge and the share of children who have access to quality early childhood services is small – so there is a lot of room for improvement.”

USAID – the United States international development agency – released a new education strategy this week that will help the organisation provide urgently-needed assistance for some of the poorest countries to accelerate services for young learners.

USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Bama Athreya said: “We are at a turning point. USAID’s new strategy elevates early childhood development. That is a signal that we are talking about all ages and stages.”

At a UNESCO conference in 2022, countries globally committed to invest at least 10% of total education spending on pre-primary education. UNESCO Assistant Director-General Stefania Giannini told the Act For Early Years event: “Investment in early childhood care and education is crucial or we risk losing a generation of learners. But it is still dramatically underfunded, especially for the youngest and most disadvantaged children.”

She said that, significantly, only a third of the world’s richer countries are meeting the 10% spending target.

A bleak picture of the chronic underfunding in the early years came in new analysis by the University of Cambridge for Theirworld. It showed that global aid to pre-primary education increased by 40% between 2021 and 2022 – reaching $282million, the highest since records began in 2002.

But this was driven largely by spending from a single donor – the World Bank. It invested $181million in pre-primary education in 2022, almost two-thirds of total aid to pre-primary education.

Theirworld President Justin van Fleet welcomed the increase in spending on pre-primary education but added: “The undeniable truth is that spending on children’s early years is still too low.

“Prioritising investment in pre-primary education for all children, especially those most at risk of being excluded from learning, has profound long-term benefits for society. Yet despite this, donors are spending 21 times more on higher education that on pre-primary education. This imbalance must be addressed urgently.”

Meanwhile, a delegation of mini US leaders – alias three young children dressed as President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellan – delivered an Act For Early Years message to world leaders outside the White House a day before Theirworld’s event.