It was a Wednesday, the busiest day at the National Congress in Brazil. Voting, hearings, and testimonials were all in session. The corridors in the Camara dos Deputados beamed with activity as Parliamentarians greeted each other going in and out of sessions. Advocacy groups hovered outside the rooms, waiting for their turn.The front of one auditorium held the banner “First International Seminar on the Legal Framework for ECD”. The Parliamentary Front on Early Childhood Development (ECD) of the National Congress of Brazil is a caucus of Brazilian legislators, represented by multiple parties, whose objective was to promote ECD within the National Congress. It convened the seminar and also brought together members of the Hemispheric Network of Parliamentarians in Latin America. The auditorium was filled, only some standing room was left.

Participants included Brazilian government ministers, Parliamentarians from nine political parties, as well as 500 government officials, academics, and representatives from civil societies and businesses from: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, United States, Guatemala, Netherlands, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

The purpose was to build a legal framework that would guarantee comprehensive care for all boys and girls 0 to 6 years of age in Brazil – a public policy based on the newest scientific evidence of early child development. Delegations from eight neighboring Latin American countries intended to do the same in their respective countries and were there to learn.

Who was more sought after to speak about why invest in ECD than the Nobel Laureate James Heckman? Professor Heckman’s keynote presentation entitled “The Economics of Inequality and Human Development” set the stage for the deliberation. Most societies traditionally redistribute wealth and income in order to address problent approach. He believed that pre-distribution would be a smarter policy, and he went on to ms of inequality and poverty. Professor Heckman, however, proposed a differeexplain the economic rationale.

His approach is based on promoting the capabilities of people. Multiple capabilities, including cognitive and non-cognitive skills, matter for success in life. These skills are formed early and are shaped by families and the surrounding environment where children are brought up. Distilling from the advances in neuroscience and econometric analysis on the technology of skills formation, Professor Heckman emphasized that a major refocus of policy requires incorporating recent advances in neuroscience, biology and the economics of human development.

Family influence extends beyond transmission of genes. The powerful role of familial influence is a concern because family environments in many countries around the world including Brazil have deteriorated over the past several decades. A unified approach to social policy is based on a strategy of human development that understands the importance of the early years. It is during these years where inequalities can emerge. And it is also during these years where there are large opportunities to produce the skills needed for the future workforce.

Brazil is proud of its many legislations that protect the rights of children since the ratification of the Constitution of 1988. The constitution recognized the role of family, society and the State to protect the rights of children. Subsequent laws and directives, such as the Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente, de 1990; Lei Orgânica da Saúde; de 1990; Lei Orgânica da Assistência Social, de 1993; Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional, de 1996, promulgated the protection of children. The government also approved a National Plan of Action on Early Child Development in 2012.  Despite these advances, very young children are still the largest vulnerable group.

Considerable progress was achieved to reduce poverty and hunger over the past decade. The Bolsa Familia and Plano Brasil Sem Miséria Programs have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Continued analysis on inequality and poverty led by the Ministry of Strategic Action showed that to further reduce poverty and promote economic development, new strategies would need to focus on improving human capabilities. It is no wonder why Professor Heckman’s timely message struck such a chord.

In 2012, the Federal Government launched the Ação Brasil Carinhoso Program  with the objective to target 2 million families that have children under the age of 6.  The Brazil Carinhoso would integrate several national plans – Plano Brasil Sem Miséria and expand Bolsa Familia (by increasing the amount of the cash transfer for families with children under 6). Moreover, it would increase the available capacity of crèches, and improve basic child health care with free provision of vitamin A and asthma medications.  For families with children under 6, a minimum wage equivalent of 70 reals would be transferred per family member. According to the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica (IBGE), this would reduce the amount of people living in absolute poverty (currently 40% of Brazil’s 196.7 million inhabitants), of which 2.7 million children are under the age of 6.

The expanding knowledge of early childhood development is being incorporated to policies and programs to protect and nurture the brains of young children in Brazil. The Parliamentarians, led by Congressman Osmar Terra of the Frente Parliamentar, are taking action. The Marco Legal would be the first step to review all the legislations through this lens and to promote the design of a legal framework based on the science of ECD.

As Professor Heckman says, “the understanding that investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large.”   But the implication of Brazil’s actions is far reaching as other Latin American countries are taking note and following suit.

Mary E. Young, MD, DrPH, is Senior Advisor to the Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child and Co-leader of the Early Childhood Initiative/HCEO Working Group at the University of Chicago.