Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Early childhood development within applied global health research

The aim of this area of investment is to fund innovative applied research in early childhood development (ECD) in global contexts. This includes the physical, socio-emotional, cognitive and motor development of children up to eight years old.

This is funded through the applied global health research board, which is an ongoing initiative with annual funding rounds.
Partners involved:
Medical Research Council (MRC), Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)

The scope and what we're doing

We are seeking to fund innovative applied research that promotes early childhood development (ECD) in global contexts. Applications within this area of strategic interest can be submitted through the applied global health research board.

ECD is an area of strategic interest that will inform funding discussions at the board meeting. It is jointly funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). This means that applications eligible for Official Development Assistance (those that primarily benefit low and middle-income country populations) will be considered to be fully funded by FCDO through this mechanism.

ECD is defined as an outcome of the nurturing care required by a child for healthy growth and development from conception to age eight. It encompasses:

  • early learning
  • responsive caregiving
  • health and nutrition
  • security and safety
  • stimulation.

Interventions to promote ECD need to come from a range of sectors and can be provided by:

  • parents
  • families
  • communities
  • professional caregivers.


Since the turn of the century the under-five 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.

The Lancet (2017) published that there are an estimated 250 million children under five (43%) living in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) who are at risk of suboptimal development due to poverty and stunting.

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. The learning generation report found this means that these children may forfeit a quarter of their earning capacity as adults.

The ‘schooling and wage income losses due to early-childhood growth faltering in developing countries’ study explained that this equates to nearly US $177 billion lost each year in potential earnings, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. The Human Capital Project found holistic ECD is therefore seen as the foundation for human capital and poverty alleviation.

Threats to development are greatest in marginalised and vulnerable groups. This includes children:

  • with developmental and physical disabilities
  • living in fragile and conflict-affected societies (including situations of displacement and informal settlements)
  • at risk of community or household violence
  • living with a parent with poor mental health
  • with absent parents.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact ECD service delivery globally, including health, education and social protection platforms. Therefore, the impacts of these multi-layered vulnerabilities of children and the secondary impacts of ECD within the crisis are yet to be determined, but are expected to be large.

ECD and gender

To support the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), the role of gender in ECD requires further research to ascertain the impacts of nurturing care on outcomes for girls. This includes access to, and quality of, ECD service delivery. For example, understanding:

  • the impacts of early learning interventions on foundational skill development for girls
  • the cost-effectiveness of scaling gender-focused social protection mechanisms linked to caregiving.

More understanding is also needed on the indirect gender lens inherent within the design and scaling of ECD services, including:

  • gender-responsive design
  • workforce development
  • the role of mothers and fathers in responsive caregiving.

If we are to achieve the targets set out in SDG three (health) and SDG four (education), more research is needed to:

  • overcome barriers to ECD
  • promote nurturing care and opportunities for early learning, particularly in the most vulnerable populations
  • effectively intervene where necessary, with multi-sectoral services centred around the child and their family.

The current opportunity complements recent FCDO and Global Challenges Research Fund funding schemes. This is 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 FCDO that have been funded via researcher-led applications to other MRC boards and joint funding streams. For example, the MRC-Wellcome-DFID-NIHR joint global health trials scheme.

Scoping and priorities

This opportunity will support internationally competitive applied research projects with a focus on the themes of innovation and efficacy for ECD outcomes.

We 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. For example:

  • research incorporating maternal mental health
  • early learning for girls
  • safeguarding informal settlements within a single proposal, where the outcome of the project promotes healthy development.

Areas of focus

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 interventions for marginalised and vulnerable groups that are particularly at risk and disproportionately affected, including children:
    • with disabilities
    • living in fragile and conflict settings (including contexts of displacement)
    • in urban settings
    • at risk of violence
    • living with a parent with poor mental health
  • interventions targeting early stimulation and learning, including the development of foundational skills, executive function and school readiness. These may be focused on the first 1,000 days or target pre-primary years (including school transition) within formal and non-formal settings
  • the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated social distancing measures on ECD service delivery and outcomes for children, and adaptations to continue service delivery
  • 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 support access to quality occupational childcare to support economic empowerment and ECD, especially for women
  • effective interventions to promote the mental health and wellbeing of caregivers
  • effective use of technology, that is feasible in LMIC contexts, to support ECD at scale.

Proposals should address development challenges faced from birth to eight years of age, or a selected age focus within this age range. For example, the first 1,000 days, or key transition points such as school readiness for pre-primary transition.

Where novel interventions or models are proposed, they must:

  • demonstrate solid formative research underpinning intervention design
  • include robust cost-effectiveness analysis
  • consider the scalability of the proposed intervention or model.

This is in an effort to close the existing evidence gap on the cost-effectiveness of ECD interventions.

Why we're doing it

Increased joint funding for ECD is one outcome of the nurturing care framework. This is a range of education, health, nutrition and social protection inputs and environments.

Opportunities, support and resources available


Black et al., 2017, The Lancet, 389, 77 to 90.

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, 104 to 112.

Who to contact

MRC international


Last updated: 16 February 2023

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