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Developing leadership for young children in Brazil

Eduardo Queiroz, CEO, Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation, São Paulo, Brazil, and James Cairns, Director of International Programs, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

A collaboration led by the Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child has so far trained 125 Brazilian public leaders in translating scientific knowledge about early child development into effective programmes and policies. This article explores how the initiative works, and evidence of success so far in the action plans that participants are putting into place in various parts of Brazil.

As we look across the field of early childhood development from the perspective of civil society – including foundations, non-governmental organisations and academic institutions – the dominant pattern has been that of supporting individual projects or programmes that are trying to improve children’s outcomes in a range of developmental domains. Researchers develop individual interventions, NGOs implement projects in specific settings, and foundations tend to fund a portfolio of discrete projects (on occasion, foundations also get drawn in to try to implement large-scale programmes when governments are unable or unwilling to do so, but without government’s reach, capacity and mandate). All of these efforts, when done well, can have real impact on improving the developmental outcomes of a limited number of children.

The ‘Executive Leadership Program in Early Childhood Development’ has been able to inspire, engage and equip public and private leaders from multiple sectors to advance important new early childhood development programmes. Photo • Courtesy Center on the Developing Child

The ‘Executive Leadership Program in Early Childhood Development’ has been able to inspire, engage and equip public and private leaders from multiple sectors to advance important new early childhood development programmes. Photo • Courtesy Center on the
Developing Child

If we are honest with ourselves, however, those of us who work in civil society organisations – a foundation and a university, in our specific case – know that we will never have the capacity on our own to achieve impact at scale to change the developmental pathway for the tens of millions of children across Brazil and the world who are at risk. Yet we continue to struggle to figure out how to build collaborations and deeper engagement with those who lead the institutions in society that have the potential to reach entire populations.

It was a shared desire to achieve greater impacts and an understanding of the need to catalyse broader engagement that brought together the Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (HCDC), and three other leading partner organisations – the Medical School of the University of São Paulo, Insper (Instituto de Ensino e Pesquisa, Institute of Education and Research), and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard (DRCLAS) – in 2011 to create a collaborative early childhood initiative in Brazil called Núcleo Ciência Pela Infância (NCPI, Science Centre for Childhood).

This initiative was an opportunity to test and adapt in Brazil some methods that HCDC had been using successfully in the United States to leverage the scientific knowledge base about early development to promote more effective early childhood development policies and programmes.

From the beginning the partners agreed that NCPI would not implement ‘projects’ in the traditional way – neither in research nor service delivery. Instead our core objectives would be to build an interdisciplinary scientific knowledge base about early development in Brazil; to translate and communicate the science to inform public policy; and to build the capacity of public leaders to use the science in shaping more effective programmes and policies. These objectives seemed to be where as partners we might achieve progress in a way that none of our organisations could do individually. Still, we knew we could not move this agenda alone and we needed to find ways to inspire, engage, and equip leaders who shape policy agendas, mobilise and allocate resources, and guide public opinion, so that they could be champions for a stronger child development agenda across the country.

But how to do this? We were fortunate to have as a starting point a connection to Dr Mary Eming Young, former lead early childhood development expert at the World Bank who was advising HCDC, and to Dr Osmar Terra, former Secretary of Health in the state of Rio Grande do Sul and currently a Federal Deputy in the Brazilian Congress. They were both long-time leaders on child development and had been discussing the idea of a course for policymakers in early childhood development. We saw great potential for NCPI to serve as the ‘home’ for such a programme, and together we developed the ‘Executive Leadership Program in Early Childhood Development’ (ELP). From its inaugural session in March 2012, ELP quickly became one of the most important initiatives of NCPI, as it has been able to inspire, engage and equip public and private leaders from multiple sectors, levels of government, and regions of the country to advance important new early childhood development programmes.

From training to action
The programme provides a mix of knowledge, tools and practice as part of an intensive group experience that together we hoped would catalyse increased action on behalf of young children in Brazil. Each year 40–50 participants spend six days at Harvard University in an intensive, executive education-style session with specialists from all over the world on the science of child development, programme and policy effectiveness, scaling strategies, leadership skills and other topics.

In addition, each participant is part of a small group that is responsible for developing an early childhood development ‘action plan’ under the guidance of a ‘technical panel’ of Brazilian experts. After the initial week, the programme has a distance learning phase when the small groups continue to work on their action plans with support from a member of the technical panel. After roughly three months, the group reconvenes for a three-day workshop in Brazil where each small group presents its action plan for review, critique and refinement. In recent years, this workshop has also included an ‘ELP Alumni’ session when participants from previous years are invited back to interact and share experiences with the current year’s cohort.

Over the past three years, we have had more than 125 Brazilian policymakers and public leaders participate in ELP. They range from members of the Federal Congress; federal, state and municipal secretaries and senior technical leadership in departments of health, education, social development, and justice; and leaders of child-focused civil society organisations. They have come from 21 of Brazil’s 27 states, represented more than eight political parties, and produced nearly 30 early childhood development action plans.

What has been truly remarkable is that most of these action plans are in some stage of implementation without any structured follow-up support from NCPI, either in terms of funding or technical assistance. Here are some highlights:
• Over the past three years, 27 members of the Federal House and Senate from multiple political parties have participated in the course. Together they have drafted legislation to create the first national policy framework on early childhood development that mandates government to create budgets and mechanisms to promote early childhood development. This ‘Marco Legal da Primeira Infância’ was passed by the Federal House in February 2015 and is awaiting action in the Senate.
• Two Federal Deputies who attended ELP in 2012 later became mayors in the cities of Boa Vista and Arapiraca. They made early childhood development a central platform for their campaigns and are now implementing municipal policies on this issue.
• First ladies from the cities of São Paulo and Fortaleza and the state of Pernambuco have used ELP to develop or improve city/state-wide early childhood initiatives that have been incorporated into the priority issue frameworks in their respective areas.
• Senior technical staff in the federal departments responsible for implementing the presidential initiative on early childhood development, ‘Brasil Carinhoso’ (‘Loving Brazil’), have been using their experience in ELP to refine and adapt that framework to ensure more scientific and effective implementation strategies.

Success factors
What are the factors that have made ELP successful? We are still learning, but the following aspects seem to be important:
• The programme gives participants the chance to combine knowledge with practice – the curriculum offers information and tools that can help drive more effective early childhood development policies and programmes, and the small groups give the space for participants to put what they are learning into practice.
• Most participants have come to the course with a concrete challenge or mandate related to some aspect of early childhood development that they are trying to solve in the context of their professional roles. This has made the ELP experience directly relevant and has meant that they have both the responsibility and often the resources to implement the plans and ideas they have developed during the programme;
• The intensive group experience in a ‘safe’, non-public environment has fostered a new web of relationships and camaraderie among each year’s cohort of participants that has carried on over time. They are often sounding boards, informal advisors, cheerleaders and confidants to each other, and we have found ways to connect them with other work taking place within NCPI that offers a platform to promote their projects and stature as leaders in early childhood development in Brazil.
• The participation and support of experienced and recognised local and international institutions in the field of early childhood development have provided ELP with strong credibility. As one example, in addition to the NCPI partners, the Bernard van Leer Foundation has sponsored leaders from its own Brazil programme partners to attend ELP, using the course to build capacity for its own priorities in the country.

We also see peer-to-peer influence, as ELP alumni encourage their colleagues to make stronger commitments to early childhood development. As one example, the success of the programme in Fortaleza, led by the first lady, has drawn the attention of the first lady of the state of Ceara (where Fortaleza is the state capital), who now wants to develop something similar to support other municipalities across the state to prioritise early childhood.

Brazil is a massive, diverse and complex country. Even this expanded group of 125 champions of early childhood development will not by itself transform the lives of all Brazilian children. But its members do sit in some of the most important institutions that influence what municipalities, states, and the federal government will or will not do for children and families. And their commitment and leadership are spreading.

The challenge remains whether this growing number of policies, programmes and other early childhood development initiatives will actually result in changing the developmental pathway of the children most at risk of poor outcomes. The NCPI partners are committed to following these efforts closely and facilitating ongoing feedback and evaluation to help determine which programmes are having the greatest impact.