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Early childhood development


This Board opportunity seeks to fund innovative applied research that promotes early childhood development (ECD) in low and middle income countries (LMICs).

Early child development is an area of strategic interest which will inform funding discussions at the Board meeting. This Board opportunity is jointly funded by the Department for International Development (DFID).

This Board defines ECD as an outcome of the nurturing care required by a child for healthy growth and development from conception to age 8, encompassing responsive caregiving, health and nutrition, early learning, security and safety, and stimulation. Interventions to promote ECD need to come from a range of sectors and can be provided by parents, families, communities or professional caregivers.


Since the turn of the century the under-5 mortality rate has decreased by 47%. With improved survival rates there is a growing global emphasis on the need for children to thrive, not just survive, with an estimated 250 million (43% of children under five) living in LMICs being at risk of suboptimal development due to poverty and stunting[1]. The different cross-sectoral domains of ECD are mutually important and reinforcing: analysis shows that stunting is associated with reduced school participation, and impaired cognitive and socio emotional skill development, meaning that these children may forfeit a quarter of their earning capacity as adults[2]. This equates to nearly US $177 billion lost each year in potential earnings, perpetuating the cycle of poverty[3]. Holistic ECD is therefore seen as the foundation for human capital and poverty alleviation[4].

Threats to development are greatest in marginalised and vulnerable groups. This includes children with developmental and physical disability, those living in fragile and conflict affected societies (including situations of displacement and informal settlements), those at risk of community or household violence, those living with a parent with poor mental health, and those with absent parents. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact ECD service delivery globally, including health, education and social protection platforms – the impact of these multi-layered vulnerabilities of children on the secondary impacts of ECD within the crisis are yet to be determined, but are expected to be large. 

To support in the achievement of the SDGs, the role of gender in ECD requires further research to ascertain the impacts of Nurturing Care on outcomes for girls, including in access to, and quality of, ECD service delivery. For example, understanding the impacts of early learning interventions on foundational skill development for girls, or the cost-effectiveness of scaling gender-focussed social protection mechanisms linked to caregiving. More understanding is also needed on the indirect inherent gender lens within the design and scaling of ECD services including gender-responsive design, workforce development, and the role of mothers and fathers in responsive caregiving.   

If we are to achieve the targets set out in Sustainable Development Goals 3 (Health) and 4 (Education) more research is needed to overcome barriers to ECD, promote nurturing care and opportunities for early learning, particularly in the most vulnerable populations, and effectively intervene where necessary, with multi-sectoral services centred around the child and their family.

The current opportunity complements recent DFID and British Academy funding schemes by deliberately focusing on applied research questions that remain outstanding and impede progress to ensuring all children are able to thrive, not just survive. It also builds on previous investments in global ECD by MRC and DFID which have been funded via researcher-led applications to other MRC Boards, and joint funding streams (e.g., MRC-Wellcome-DFID-NIHR Joint Global Health Trials scheme).


This Board opportunity will support internationally competitive applied research projects in ECD. As with all of the Board’s funding, cross-sectoral research is welcomed, for example research incorporating maternal mental health, early learning for girls, and safeguarding in informal settlements within a single proposal, where the outcome of the project promotes healthy development. The following are areas of particular focus:

  • Interventions targeting improvements in ECD outcomes for girls including research that incorporates a gender lens through gender-responsive intervention design and data disaggregation by gender.
  • Tailored ECD intervention for marginalised and vulnerable groups that are particularly at risk and disproportionately affected, including children with disabilities, those living in fragile and conflict settings (including contexts of displacement), those in urban settings, those at risk of violence, and those living with a parent with poor mental health.
  • The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated social distancing measures on ECD service delivery and ECD outcomes for children.
  • Minimum packages of effective intervention (dosage, frequency, duration), and allocative efficiency and return on investment of ECD spend within the health and education sectors and beyond.
  • Social protection interventions to promote the delivery of nurturing care.
  • Looking beyond mothers to engage fathers and the wider family in the promotion of ECD using tailored approaches to prevention and intervention.
  • Enablers to access to quality occupational childcare to support economic empowerment and ECD, especially for women.
  • Effective interventions to promote mental health and wellbeing of caregivers.
  • Effective use of technology, that is feasible in LMIC contexts, to support ECD at scale.

Where novel interventions are proposed, they must clearly consider direct and indirect economic costs in an effort to close the existing evidence gap on the cost-effectiveness of ECD interventions.

Proposals should address development challenges faced between 0-8 years of age. We particularly encourage applications focused on 0-5 years as this represents the period of i) most rapid brain development and highest sensitivity to insult, ii) greatest inequities of access to ECD programmes, iii) key transitions, including into school. We particularly encourage applications that consider the cross-sectoral nature of ECD interventions and the continuum of contact from health and social protection through to the early years in education systems.

[1] Black et al., 2017, The Lancet, 389, 77-90.

[2] Education Commission ‘Learning Generation’ report.

[3] Fink et al (2016) Schooling and wage income losses due to early-childhood growth faltering in developing countries: national, regional, and global estimates. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 104, Issue 1, July 2016, Pages 104–112.

[4] ‘The human capital project’, World Bank Group, 2018.