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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, security and safety, stimulation and early learning. 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 number of children at risk of poor development: currently 43% of children under five – an estimated 250 million – living in LMICs are at risk of suboptimal development due to poverty and stunting[1]. The different elements 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].   

Furthermore, an estimated 93 million children age 0-14 years live with moderate or severe disability, a disproportionate number of which live in LMICs[4]. Threats to development are greatest in marginalised and vulnerable groups, including children with developmental and physical disability, those living in displaced 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. 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, child early learning, 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:

  • Tailored ECD intervention for marginalised and vulnerable groups that are particularly at risk and disproportionately affected, including children with disabilities, those residing in informal settlements and displaced populations including in fragile and conflict affected states, those in urban settings, those at risk of violence, and those living with a parent with poor mental health.
  • Effective intervention to mitigate impacts of biological, social, and environmental insult on neurocognitive development.
  • Public health promotion of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) principles and child immunisation, parenting programmes and nurturing care, nutrition and stimulation;
  • 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.
  • 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 early 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] WHO, 20111, World Report on Disability, Geneva: WHO.