Workshop participants engaging in how to scale up Early Childhood Development in Brazil

By Isabel Guerrero

Last week I was invited to work with Fundación Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal and the Government of Brazil to help them in the scaling up process of the early childhood development program, Crianca Feliz (Happy Child). The context was a week-long executive education course at Insper, for 100 government officials coming from 25 states. The program is being implemented at the Federal, State and Municipal level and integrates actions from Health, Education and Social Welfare Ministries in Brazil. It was launched in October 2016, and is now being rolled out through the country.

The pillar of Crianca Feliz is the home visitor, who works with the mother or caretaker to strengthen the attachment with the child from zero to three years of age. The main adaptive challenge at the center of the program is to change the mindset of caregivers, home visitors and government agencies so that the child is at the center of the design and implementation of the program.

My role was to help simplify the complexity of the challenges by sharing a scaling up framework, as well as to work with the participants to apply that framework to the program. We identified and worked on three aspects of Crianca Feliz:

  1. Understanding their theory of change and the essential interventions to achieve it.
  2. Unpacking the role of the coach who will train and supervise home visitors.
  3. Listing all stakeholders and analyzing which are the key actors that need to be on board for the program to succeed.

There were three very pleasant surprises from my experience working with Crianca Feliz and Insper that I would like to share.

First, Crianca Feliz is a very focused program, which has avoided the temptation to add all the bells and whistles that too often make other programs fail. At the design stage the government has clearly looked at the international experience of what works and what doesn’t. There is strong leadership from the Minister of Social Development, building on his previous experience in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. And he has supported initiatives, like this course last week, to build the capacity of civil servants to adapt and innovate.

Second, the work of the Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal in Early Childhood Development (ECD) is very impressive. They have been investing for several years in understanding the latest scientific discoveries about how the brain of a baby develops, what is the best time to invest in ECD, and what are the best experiences world wide. They have also invested in sharing this state of the art knowledge with opinion and political leaders throughout Brazil. Every year they have a competition to define which leaders in ECD from across the country will form part of the cohort that attends executive education at Harvard, where they get the tools and the time to think together how these challenges can be tackled in the Brazilian context. The work of the Fundación is probably an important reason behind the recent approval–in record time and unanimously — of a new law increasing paid parental leave for fathers from five to twenty days and to six months for mothers. Under the new law every village is required to have a safe public space for children under three to play. The law also requires transparency about public investment in ECD.

The third pleasant surprise is to get to know the work at Insper (Institute of Education and Research), a Brazilian higher education institution focusing on business, economics and engineering. The course took place at their impressive Vila Olimpia Campus, which feels like being at the Media Lab in MIT. The teachers and facilities are first rate and I was specially impressed by the work of Rodrigo Amantae who used design thinking to help civil servants think outside the box and innovate. He was masterful at leading really fun exercises that helped the 100 participants focus on the child and the caretaker. The participants were then able to derive insights about the implementation of the program after a field visit to the state of Paraná, just south of São Paulo, where implementation of Crianca Feliz is already underway.  Over two days, the implementers of Crianca Feliz throughout Brazil worked across their typical silos to come up with innovations to improve the effectiveness of the program.

Overall, this was a wonderful learning experience for IMAGO on how to scale up an ECD intervention throughout a large country. It takes a village and many sectors and disciplines to come together. But the payoff is life-long improvement in the chances of a young child to have a happy and productive life.