HCEO recently sat down with ECI/HI network member Jere Behrman to discuss his work studying early childhood development in developing nations.

While Behrman has been studing developing economies for decades, in recent years his focus has shifted to early childhood development in these countries. "I think it's sort of important to emphasize that in the context of developing countries, early childhood development has to be approached as a holistic concern," he says. He points out that physical development is very important for these children, an aspect that doesn't get as much focus in developed nations.

As an example, he notes that an estimated 25 percent of the world's children are stunted - that is, short for their age due primarily to undernutrition. "Why do we care?" he asks. "We care because being stunted early in life in particular is associated with limited neural development. And that has impacts on cognitive development, socioemotional development - the other things that we do more directly care about in a 21st century world."

Different areas of the world, of course, have varying proportions of these children - with most concentrated in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. "These children are really at risk of not developing reasonably their potential," Behrman says. "From a perspective of humanity, this is potentially just a huge loss." The underdevelopment of these children will follow them to adulthood, potentially resulting in economic loss and other negative effects.

"It's not the case that the only reason you want to invest in children is because there are economic returns to doing so," he says. "You may want to because of moral concerns or because of concerns about humanity. This is a case where those concerns are reinforced by the high benefit cost ratios."

Behrman is a Professor of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and a Research Associate at Penn's Population Studies Center.