South Africa is First Middle-Income Country to Fund Impact Bonds for Early Childhood Development
March 18 was an historic day for early childhood development (ECD) financing—the Departments of Social Development and Health of the Western Cape province of South Africa committed 25 million rand ($1.62 million) in outcome funding for three social impact bonds (SIBs) for maternal and early childhood outcomes. This is the first ever funding committed by a middle-income government for a SIB—to date no low-income country governments have participated in a SIB either—making South Africa’s choice to pioneer this new path especially exciting.
A SIB is a financing mechanism for social outcomes where investors provide upfront capital for services and a government agency repays investors contingent on outcome achievement. There are currently two active development impact bonds or DIBs (where a donor provides outcome funding rather than a government agency) in middle-income countries, one for coffee production in Peru and one for girls’ education in India. The South African SIBs, whose implementation was facilitated by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town and Social Finance U.K. as well as other organizations, will be the first impact bonds in Africa.
We have been following closely the development of these SIBs over the last two years through our research on the potential applications of impact bonds for ECD outcomes, and recently hosted a discussion on the topic at Brookings. There are currently nine other impact bonds worldwide that include outcomes for children ages 0 to 5, including two recently announced impact bonds in the U.S. for nurse home-visiting in South Carolina and support forfamilies struggling with substance abuse in Connecticut.
Impact bonds are well suited to fund interventions that have high potential returns to society; that require learning, adaptability, and combinations of services to achieve those returns; and that are not core government-funded services (often resulting in a relative proliferation of non-state providers). In our recent report, we find that a majority of evaluations show ECD can have unparalleled returns, but there are also a number of evaluations that show no significant impact or where impact fades out. Overall however, there are few evaluations relative to the number of service providers and interventions, an indication of how little we know about the effectiveness of the majority of service providers. For example, there are only 15 studies examining the effects of ECD interventions in low- and middle-income countries on later-life socioemotional development, which has been shown to be a critical determinant of success in school and life.