South Asian countries account for one-fourth of the world’s population 40 percent of the worlds school age population. The region has made notable progress off-late for its young population by reducing out-of-school children, generating greater development opportunities through vocational training program as well as greater access to higher education. Hence more than 90% of the primary school-age cohort currently attend school in six out of eight countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka). However, region is still faced with significant economic and social challenges. South Asia accounts for more than one-third of the world’s income poverty with low female participation of under 25% even when women represent 50% of the overall population. Region also significantly lags on education and human development with World Bank study finding top performer in the region only 58% productive to what it would be with full health and nutrition. 89 million children under the age of five are still at risk of not reaching their development potential creating significant challenges for the region to holistically grow and develop.There are number of steps and reforms which South Asian countries needs to take at its earliest to address these issues. However, focussing and investing in Early Childhood Education sector could be the biggest game changer in addressing the economic and social challenges like education quality, poverty or income levels, female participation, economic productivity and growth. As per UNESCO definition, early childhood, defined is the period from birth to eight years old, is a time of remarkable growth with brain development at its peak. Region currently spends less than the ideal expenditure on its overall education sector. International benchmarks, by way of the Education 2030 Framework for Action (UNESCO 2015), suggest two targets for the education spendingAllocating at least 4 to 6 percent of GDP to education;Assigning at least 15 to 20 percent of the public expenditures to educationAfghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka meet neither of these suggested targets. However more importantly looking at the classification where money is spent within the education industry, South Asian countries except Maldives spends minimal or negligible amount on early childhood education. Most countries embarrassingly spend 0% to 1% of their education budget on Early learning. For comparison Australia spends more than 8% of its education budget on early education. Developing and investing in early childhood education can provide multi-faceted benefits such as:As per World Bank, investing in early years’ education is one of the smartest things a country could do to eliminate extreme poverty, boost shared prosperity and create the human capital needed for the economies to diversify, grow and innovate. This is because quality childhood education provides the children sound foundations to learn, develop and expand through better mental health and innovative skills, especially for the children from poor and uneducated households. Therefore, children become much better placed to be ambitious and finding ways to success and their financial well being.New research has shown that children in lower and middle-income countries who experience high quality early learning can learn more in primary school and can earn up to a quarter more in wages as adults. Similarly, World Bank Group (WBG) analysis of the long-term benefits of early childhood education in 12 countries found that children who attended preschool stayed in school for nearly a year longer, on average, and are more likely to be employed in high-skilled jobs. In simple words, it means that early childhood education is likely to result in greater income leading to higher spend, saving and investment to in-turn generate more employment.The early childhood education sector typically attracts females as they hold more than 95% of the employment positions in Australia and USA. This provides an opportunity to tap into South Asia’s untapped resources by providing females a new specialised stream of employment opportunities. This should typically result in greater female participation and employment rate leading to higher household income and improved financial well beingWith kids going to early childhood education schools, this would in-turn allow parents, especially the mothers to be involved in more productive and value-adding tasks, to get themselves more involved in seeking jobs and purse better financial outcomes for their families.Early childhood education would also boost further vocational training industry where greater number of people, specifically females would look to study and teach courses to become qualified early childhood education teachersSaying is easy as difficulty or challenges come with implementation. However extensive amount of research and studies have been carried on early childhood education to know what South Asian governments need to do to promote and encourage early childhood education such as:South Asia countries need to urgently increase public spending at lower levels of education, especially early childhood education. Additional budget could be re-allocated from existing education budget or generated through additional means. For example, Columbia started an early childhood caring program by sourcing revenue through introduction of two percent payroll tax. Similar measures could be taken by South Asian countries provided governments are upfront and transparent for the purpose and usage of the new tax itemIncreasing the spend only would not solve the challenges as where and how to spend is equally important to ensure efficient usage of funds and to maximise the benefits, especially for this region where financial corruption could be quite prevalent, to say the least. There are few models to consider and follow. For example; In Brazil – municipal governments are primarily responsible for early childhood, primary and lower secondary education, while the federal and state governments have primary responsibility for higher levels of education. Municipalities are required to spend at least 25 percent of their revenue on education with federal / state also distributing funds to municipalities based on the number of enrolled public-school students. This incentivises municipalities to get maximum number of local kids enrolled in their schools and keep the minimum required quality to attract the kids to public schoolsIn South Africa, it is very similar as provincial governments fund grants to community-based early learning centres on a per learner basis, reaching areas where other early-learning opportunities are unavailableIn Indonesia since 2002, the Ministry of National Education (MONE) has funded block grants to encourage private sector participation in Early learning centre. These grants are used as seed funds by private and non-profit organizations to expand their operations.Specialised federal or state level ministries for Early childhood education. This sector is often neglected due to unclear role and accountability to its belonging. Therefore, governments need to remove the complexity by creating a specialised ministry of its own to take care of early childhood education within the countryRegulating private employers employing female to ensure providing child care support. For example, India recently passed legislation to help new mothers return to the workplace by mandating the workplaces with more than 50 female employees to provide an on-site childcare service.Focus should be to develop a mechanism for entities best suited for the service delivery, whether government or nonstate providers, and carefully regulated. Encouraging private players to enter childhood education provider marketProfessionalising the teaching profession by regulating minimum qualification requirement for teachers to improve overall teaching quality. This could be done in a stepped approach starting from early childhood education to avoid any immediate impact on the current teaching employmentThe often-poorer quality and limited availability of services in rural areas are also constraints. To increase impact, public policy needs to address quality and access concerns to target early childhood development programs to disadvantaged areas and households. This could be done by providing incentives for families to get their kids enrolled in early childhood education centre or incentivising the education providers to cover as many kids in their local area as possible (viability of providing child care to poor in developing countries) Pegging social assistance transfer programs with kids’ enrolment to schools could provide a gateway to reaching those most in need and a corresponding entry point for coordinated service provisionMedia campaigns targeting families with young children could help to create awareness around importance of early childhood education. The writer is currently working as a senior manager in the largest Australian bank with keen interest in global economics and politics.?