“Once the administration started giving children — a third of our population — a third of our time, a third of our effort, a third of the decision-making and thinking, then it really changed the city.”
So Erion Veliaj, mayor of the Albanian capital Tirana, told Apolitical in a 2017 interview. His city took radical steps to bring kids and their wellbeing into its decision making. It’s an example of how strong leadership and a cross-cutting approach can improve the lives of large numbers of children at once.
The Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF) works to share best practice on transitioning successful early childhood initiatives to scale, and has partnered with Apolitical for our spotlight series on scaling initiatives that support babies, toddlers and the people who care for them.
It has also developed a set of “conditions to scale and sustainability” — conditions it considers vital for achieving “sustained impact at scale” or “creating the foundation for sustainability and scalability.
These are: Diverse leadership; Cost effective ideas and costing data; Effective governance and management; Strong, diverse civic engagement; Robust workforce; Sustainable, predictable financing; Actionable monitoring and evaluation systems; anchoring in policy; and a rigorous evidence base.
For the spotlight series, we spoke to the foundation’s Andrea Torres — senior early childhood development specialist — and Irina Ivan — lead, learning to scale — about these conditions to scale and other lessons they have learned from BvLF’s work around the world.
Here are four key lessons from our conversation.
Committed leadership is key
Irina: Policy maker leadership is absolutely one of the cross-cutting points for us. What’s super exciting is to see the journey that policymakers go on, in developing their sense of excitement about and ownership over early years.
So before we begin to see a result, there’s a process that leaders go on to understand early childhood policy more deeply, and the benefits it can bring. That has tended to happen, for example, by officials attending an executive education course at Harvard, or there’s a program in Latin America called the NCPI which has an executive education component but also other components such as a scientific committee, a yearly seminar and a program to promote local innovations in early childhood. Participants have found these to be a useful start to their journeys.
In addition to executive education, there are also peer learning exchanges or study tours. In Tel Aviv, a study tour to Copenhagen hosted by Gehl, a Danish architecture and design consultancy, led Yoav Ben-Yehuda, director of parks and gardens in the city of Tel Aviv, to the realisation that “I could make public spaces where parents and small children want to stay and have fun and learn.”
“There’s an imperative to go beyond the usual suspects in early childhood”
Andrea: You could also take my own example of working with President Michelle Bachelet in Chile [who put early childhood high on her policy agenda], or Tirana, where the mayor is a super strong leader in pushing early childhood.
Link early childhood to other policy priorities to get buy-in and improve longevity
Irina: Policymakers need not only to understand the impact of targeting the early years, but to make links to whatever priorities they have at the time. In Recife, Brazil, for example, they make a key link between early childhood and reducing violence.
The mayor in Recife realised that connecting early childhood development strategies to the city’s urban planning initiatives could give the next generation better life alternatives, and therefore reduce the city’s high level of violence.
In Tel aviv, a key link was made by the city — before its focus on early years — to the increases in cost of living. Research showed these increases comprised primarily of food, transportation and early years services.
Andrea: An idea that the foundation has been trying to put out there is the imperative to go beyond the usual suspects in early childhood. This is why our Urban95 initiative is so groundbreaking, for example. The health and social and education sectors are super important, but we also need cities that are supportive for children’s development, including, for example, planning and transportation and public space departments.
“Administrative issues might seem a bit boring, but they are super influential”
Foster close co-operation between different parts of government
Irina: Early years is a topic that spans multiple sectors, and therefore does not always neatly “fit” into only one department, which is both a strength and a weakness.
What this means in practice is that most early years interventions are effective at scale call for a strong inter-sectoral process that brings together multiple Ministries. For example, the Crianca Feliz program in Brazil brings together the Ministries of Health, Education, Social Assistance, Culture and Human Rights at each of the 3 levels of Government (National, State and Municipal).
In the case of Tirana, one of the things that’s worked well for them is this idea of having a child development officer, who becomes the coordinator across the various departments. In the case of Tel Aviv, what has worked for them is a dedicated Urban 95 project manager that is part of the Community, Culture and Sports Administration. What is also really cool in Tel Aviv is that they now also have a dedicated deputy mayor with explicit responsibility for early years services.
Andrea: In some places — as in Recife — you’ll have the mayor doing monthly or bi-weekly meetings with all the departments, giving them goals that are cross-sector. You can also have budgets that are cross-sectoral.
Think about administrative capacity and evaluation, even if it’s boring
Andrea: Most of the time administrative issues tend to be kept away until it is too late, because they are not fancy — they are a little bit boring. But actually I think they are super influential in every intervention.
I like what the Tirana team is doing right now in terms of monitoring and evaluation, but also in terms of some management decisions. They are gathering a lot of information and building a set of around 40 indicators about neighbourhoods in Tirana and how supportive they are for infant and toddler and caregiver development. They are building a dashboard with this data, so that their next investment decisions can be driven by that information.
Irina: I think the thing that stands out for me, and this is not an initiative that is at scale yet, but it’s in the process of scaling, is an initiative called TRECC. It is using real time monitoring data to try to make decisions about whether or not you scale up a particular portion of an intervention.
There are five different models running, relatively different approaches, and they’re getting new monitoring data that looks at KPIs that are a proxy for outcomes, because you can’t look at outcomes in the short term.
(Picture credit: Unsplash)