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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Saving Brains? Applying Ethnography to Early Childhood Interventions in the Global South

Early Childhood Development in the Global South – global ECD – is an emerging field of international development. A fundamental premise of global ECD is that poverty around the world is reproduced by poor cognitive, and socio-emotional development in early childhood. Such presumed developmental deficits are believed to translate into low school achievement in middle childhood and low productivity as well as high fertility, and high crime rates in adulthood. The central promise of global ECD is that interventions aiming to improve parenting skills will boost early development, and consequently lead to higher school achievement and adult productivity. If applied nationwide, such interventions are expected to lead to sustainable economic and societal development. The World Bank, UNICEF, WHO, and many other organizations are promoting early childhood interventions as the foundation of sustainable development. According to these organizations, global ECD is based on ‘the best available evidence’ drawn from developmental psychology, neurosciences, pediatrics, and behavioral economics.

The project engages critically with the evidence claims of global ECD on two levels. On the one hand it explores the underlying scientific claims, how they are translated into policies and parenting interventions, how the targeted families experience such interventions, and which unexpected consequences they might entail. For this purpose, the project includes ethnographic studies in three settings, one in Southeast Asia, another in East Africa, and a third study in Latin America. On the other hand, the project aims to create academic exchanges and debates between anthropologists as well as other social scientists and the ECD scientific community to make sure that existing ethnographic research can enter the relevant scientific discourses. This second purpose is based on the insight that ethnographic research, even if it is critical, often fails to reach those scientific fields that are in the focus of its critique. One strategy to make a difference with ethnographic evidence is to publish commentaries in ECD journals. Here are some examples:
Scheidecker, G et al. (2021). How overstated scientific claims undermine ethical principles in parenting interventions. BMJ Global Health, 6(9), e007323;
Scheidecker et al. (2022). Different is not deficient: Respecting diversity in early childhood development. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 6(12), e24-e25. For further details see Scheidecker, G., Chaudhary, N., Keller, H., Mezzenzana, F., & Lancy, D. F. (2023). “Poor brain development” in the global South? Challenging the science of early childhood interventions. Ethos, 51(1), 3-26.
Scheidecker, G., Tekola, B., Rasheed, M., Oppong, S., Mezzenzana, F., Keller, H., & Chaudhary, N. (2024). Ending epistemic exclusion: toward a truly global science and practice of early childhood development. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 8(1), 3-5.

Slide from a presentation by Gabriel Scheidecker