A large body of scientific evidence has established the central role of early childhood health and education in fostering lifetime well-being and economic success of children in both developed and developing countries (Engle et al., 2007; Elango et al., forthcoming). In India, programs that promote early childhood development are delivered primarily by Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). ICDS is under-resourced relative to its importance for human development, which results in uneven quality, with many programs failing to provide supplementary nutrition, pre-school education, or essential health services (PEO, 2011). At the same time, fiscal constraints make large increases in ICDS spending infeasible. It is, therefore, critical to determine the most cost-effective methods for boosting ICDS quality so that scarce resources can be directed to programs that generate maximal social value.
ICDS in Tamil Nadu is one of the best-performing government schemes in India. A comprehensive study of ICDS published by the Planning Commission ranked Tamil Nadu first on an index of anganwadi infrastructure, and among the top 10 states overall (PEO, 2011). The state also outperforms most others on key nutrition indicators, including the fraction of underweight children (Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2013-2014). Tamil Nadu is therefore in a strong position to provide national leadership in identifying, piloting, and evaluating interventions with the potential to improve ICDS services at scale.
Our research, to be conducted in partnership with ICDS in Tamil Nadu, will provide experimental evidence on the cost-effectiveness of policy interventions that aim to improve the functioning of ICDS. In the first year of this partnership we will conduct a randomized experiment to evaluate four such interventions in a representative sample of anganwadi preschool centers (AWCs) throughout Tamil Nadu. The four interventions are:
1. Hiring early childhood care and education (ECCE) facilitators;
2. A supplemental nutrition program;
3. A performance-based pay for anganwadi workers linked to child nutrition outcomes; and
4. An across-the-board increase in pay for anganwadi workers.