Grammy Award-winning artist Shakira and World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick have launched a US$300 million joint initiative aimed at expanding development programs for young children in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The “Early Childhood Initiative: An Investment for Life” seeks to focus cost-effective policies and resources in the region, while mobilizing public support to improve opportunities for its young citizens and thereby help overcome deep inequalities, said Zoellick during a signing ceremony of the partnership agreement between Shakira’s ALAS Foundation, Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the World Bank, held at the Bank’s Washington D.C. headquarters.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) programs provide children with adequate nutrition, healthcare and stimulating environments from the moment of conception through age six –a period of development crucial for achieving a child’s full potential. The initiative will help expand ECD programs in a region where 9 million children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition and 22 million lack access to early basic care.

“If we want to build a better world, we have to give children the chance to improve their lives, no matter where they are born or how difficult their circumstances. By giving every child a fair start in life, we are improving our collective future,” Shakira told the an audience of 100 VIPs, including Latin American and Caribbean ambassadors and officials from the education sector, along with representatives from other international organizations.

The singer made a special trip to the Oval Office to meet Barack Obama as part of the launch: “It was such a privilege to sit down with the President in the Oval Office to discuss our shared commitment to education and early childhood development. We agreed that investing in our children is the smartest strategy governments can use to boost economic growth, fight poverty, and promote global security and peace. We will be working closely with the President and his staff to implement his vision – for Latinos, children in the United States, and around the world.”

The Colombian artist is a leading activist for children and the founder of ALAS – a coalition of Latin American artists and business leaders promoting the adoption of comprehensive ECD programs in the region.

The groundbreaking initiative will provide over the next two years US$300 million in loans, grants and trust fund resources, as well as technical support, towards the design and implementation of ECD policies in Latin America and the Caribbean. It will also expand a learning community of practitioners to exchange knowledge and experiences.

ALAS – and Shakira in particular – have made an enormous contribution to placing young children at the heart of the public policy priorities in Latin America ,” said Zoellick.“We are pleased to work with her, ALAS and the Earth Institute to offer hope and opportunity for children who deserve a better future.”

Zoellick and Shakira explained that investments in ECD programs are among the most effective –and cost-effective– a country can make as participating children demonstrate improved health and academic outcomes, while showing higher productivity and income in later years. They noted that delays in early childhood interventions are difficult and costly to reverse later in life, as the Bank’s recent publication The Promise for Early Childhood Development in Latin America illustrates.

Citing Haiti’s emergency response as a timely example of working with partners, Zoellick said that ECD initiatives will play a key role in Haiti’s reconstruction, where attention will be placed on rebuilding not only the country’s infrastructure but also the potential of its people. He stressed the importance of partnering with UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Food Programme, among others, to provide urgent relief to the Haitian children and mitigate the long-term impact of the January 12 earthquake on an entire generation of Haitians.

One of the initiative’s first programs will be a partnership with Mexico’s state agency CONAFE to provide training for parents and caregivers to improve their competencies and practices in caring for children 0-4. The initiative will focus on the poorest 172 municipalities in Mexico, located primarily in its southern states.

In addition to providing funds to participating countries, the Early Childhood Initiative will work with the ECD Secretariat for Latin America and the Caribbean, a project of ALAS, the Earth Institute, and the governments of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Panama, Paraguay and Argentina, to develop best practices and identify promising pilot projects for children under 6. This work will be presented at the UN’s Millennium Development Goals Summit in September and the XX Ibero-American Summit of the regional Heads of State in November in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

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