Hips (and Numbers) Don’t Lie

The Truth of Early Childhood Development

By Shakira

Shakira (second from right) poses with (from left) Harvard Professor Jack Shonkoff; UNICEF Director Anthony Lake; Madame Yoo Soon-taek; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Matthew Bishop of the The Economist at the "Meeting of the Minds," an event she co-hosted with UNICEF at the United Nations. 

The first time I remember singing was as a five-year-old on the way to the beach. Going to the beach is almost sacred—you have to go to the beach every Sunday when you live in a coastal town in Colombia. My parents commented on my very special voice. That’s when I became aware of it.

Looking back, I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a difference so that the smallest voices—the voices of our children—have a chance to be heard. Artists can reach, inspire, and motivate young people and leaders in a powerful way.

Music has given a voice to many. We, as artists, can be a part of creating a better world. But I am also very concerned with the creation of partnerships with grass-roots groups, the private sector and government leaders. It doesn’t matter if you are a musician, a business leader, a president or a student. We all have a responsibility to give back. That’s why I believe so strongly in early childhood development.

The first years of life are crucial in the development of a human brain. Advances in neuroscience are revealing striking discoveries about how early experiences in the first five years can have a huge impact on the developing brain of a child and repercussions that can span a lifetime. For example, in the early years, 700 to 1,000 new neural connections form every second. 

I just gave birth seven months ago, so to me this information is astonishing. This is the moment when we want to be doing things right for a baby, because as we get older, the brain loses plasticity and it becomes more difficult to change its architecture.

Thus, we have a very, very small window to affect a child’s life and his future.

We need to provide children with the proper care, nutrition and stimulation in the first five years, because it’s proven that children who benefit from Early Childhood Development programs do better in school and later in life, as opposed to kids who don’t have that advantage and are then more likely to have severe learning difficulties, lack attentiveness, and have less ability to interact well with others.

And unfortunately, the disadvantage can be especially drastic when a child is exposed to violence, because it affects the development of the brain and can cause aggressive behavior later in the adult.

As a person who comes from a country marked by violence, and civil and social strife, I’ve seen this firsthand. Sadly in Colombia, like in many other developing countries, if one is born poor, one is destined to die poor. 

This lack of social mobility is due in  part to education being perceived as a luxury instead of a right; people don’t have access to equal opportunities and this perpetuates the cycle of poverty and unrest. 

In the schools my Barefoot Foundation has set up in Colombia, the role of early childhood development is seen as vital for the kids to complete their education successfully. Many of our students had been victims of violence or have lost family members, so you can imagine the obstacles we encountered that ranged from behavior issues to problems of basic infrastructure to malnourishment.

In order to overcome many of these difficulties, we had to find creative solutions such as school feeding programs,  parent and teacher training, and psychosocial support for the children and community at large.

We now have six schools in Colombia; in Barranquilla, we have 2,000 students and in Cartagena, 1,800. 

We’ve been able to have an impact on more than 60,000 people, virtually eliminated malnutrition and child labor, local gangs have disbanded, and we were able to commit the government to do its part by bringing electricity and potable water to the area, as well as paving roads. 

However, it has been a process of trial and error, and we had a hard time, a really hard time keeping kids in school, because they had never received adequate care and nutrition, so that’s when we realized that we were getting to these children too late. That’s when I became aware that we needed to make Early Childhood Development (ECD) a priority.

Children who had access to ECD programs were more school-ready, could learn better, and today we have virtually no school dropouts.

We started forging public-private alliances and expanded throughout Latin America, building four ECD centers in Mexico, 13 in Argentina and 19 in Colombia. The success stories paint the picture better than I can. Take Tania, for example, who entered one of our schools in Soacha, Colombia, at the age of nine having been expelled from her previous school for serious behavior issues. 

She was eventually able to rise above her situation and even become an example to other students, helping to form an after-school program to keep children out of trouble. Now a 19-year-old university student, she is studying to become a child psychologist herself. And this is just one of many, many examples that I could give you of kids who have turned their lives around in our schools.

And that is the beauty of investing in education and that is what keeps me so passionate! The change is real, and it’s immediate. 

Apart from my musical career, working on early childhood development is one of the most exciting things I’ve done. It’s incredibly encouraging knowing I haven’t wasted my time or my money, because nobody likes that; here every dollar invested has produced results. The plan is to continue developing models for comprehensive ECD centers and programs in Latin America and the United States. 

Economic studies demonstrate that for every dollar invested in a child’s early education, the same child returns $17 to the state in his or her adult life.  

Just like my hips, numbers don’t lie.

Among those who have done the math is Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who says that ECD interventions lower the risk of disease, increase the wages of children in their adult lives and also produce benefits for the rest of society, up to 10 percent a year either in savings or in revenue.

The simple truth is that ECD programs boost economic growth and are one of the most effective ways to guarantee global stability and security. I recently read a study by the Brookings Institution that caught my attention. It states that a national ECD program would add $2 trillion to America’s annual GDP within a generation.

I’m no economist, but imagine what we’d be looking at if we multiply that number several times with ECD programs in the rest of the world.

 We need a new generation of philanthropists and entrepreneurs to make this issue their own. We can be the first society that eradicates poverty and figures out an intelligent way to bring education to the most disenfranchised people on earth. 

I often wonder why there isn’t a global fund dedicated exclusively to ECD strategies around the world.  Much like the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, money in this fund could be used to encourage countries to agree on initiatives for ECD.

Every year that passes without us making significant investments in ECD, millions of kids will be born into the same cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity—today there are still 59 million kids out of school. 

We cannot afford this. 

From an economic perspective it is important, sure! But now take that to a human level, and the case becomes so much stronger.

Because money isn’t everything in the end.

But investing in humans and the future of our society is.

I strongly believe that the best is yet to come, but we need to move faster. Our children and our collective future depend on it.

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoli is a Colombian singer, composer and philanthropist.