Interview with Dr Hiro Yoshikawa
Sustainable Development Goals: 3, 9, 16
- SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
- SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
- SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa is a developmental psychologist at New York University (NYU) who co-directs the Global TIES for Children center; studying the effects of public policies and programs related to immigration, early childhood, and poverty reduction on children’s development. The center has secured a position at the front lines of advances in methods and measures for assessing child development and for understanding variation in program impacts at multiple levels in low-income and crisis-affected contexts.
Since 2013, he has co-chaired the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Thematic Network on Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Education and led their ECD related projects. Bringing his own expertise in the evaluation science around ECD intervention in Latin America to bear on a policy proposal tailored to El Salvador, Dr. Yoshikawa’s recent project with UNICEF was focused on developing a national ECD policy proposal. The policy proposal was adopted for national implementation, and his report was the initial blueprint for this effort.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the key issues your research as Co-Director of the Global TIES for Children center focuses on?
The mission at the Global TIES for Children center is to bring the highest quality developmental science, research and evidence-based evaluation to programs and policies for children and youth in a large range of countries, primarily in low-income and crisis-affected contexts. Our center works with some of the world’s leading non-governmental organizations and governments in low-income and conflict-affected countries to develop and evaluate innovative approaches to promoting the holistic development of children and their communities. This work spans cross 4 regions of the world –––the Middle East, sub Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. My area of work focuses primarily on early childhood development. By generating new evidence, conducting new research studies (such as impact organizations or longitudinal studies) and communicating the research to policymakers, our work has allowed us to increase the impact of relevant policies and programs.
What has your research revealed regarding areas with arising need for better child-focused programming?
The data suggests it is a matter of system strengthening. Of course, the most effort and resources are typically channeled into basic needs such as health and nutrition. However, all the projects I am currently working on place an emphasis on learning and human development into spaces where there are either no ECD services at all, or the ones which exist are based mostly on survival. This is certainly true of the work we conduct in South Asia with the Rohingya in Cox Bazar, and with Syrian refugees in several countries in the Middle East. In such places, our work focuses on strengthening these relevant systems building scalable models which bridge what NGOs are doing in the humanitarian sector with what governments do.
Awareness of ECD has grown drastically with the data on neuroscience, where UNICEF played a very important role in placing emphasis on the Lancet Series’ Nurturing Care Framework. However, there needs to be much more awareness on the community level to drive demand for these kinds of services, with financing as a barrier to overcome as well. From my perspective as a researcher, the monitoring and evaluation tools around quality and child development show huge promise for building an evidence-based system. It is important that information about local quality of program implementation is fed back into improving workforce development, professional development systems, and training. These are the critical levers to improve quality, which need to come from valid and reliable measures of quality as well. The global monitoring tools are an important part of the Sustainable Development Goals, and UNICEF working on 4.2.1 is a good example of that. These are key global initiatives which are important at the national and local level too, to bring insight and examples of the kinds of child development instruments which are culturally relevant.
What thinkers, research and ‘big ideas’ have influenced you and your work the most?
I am very influenced by thinkers at the intersection of public policy and child development. One of my mentors was Edward Zigler, a pioneer in the application of developmental psychology to social policy and the founder of Head Start; with over 50 years leading the intersection of public policy and child development in the USA. He definitely serves as a role model for how to take rigorous research on child development and bring it to scale. I also think of innovators in the global space such as Santiago Levy, who use research to drive better innovation in the area of policy. Additionally, the research conducted by this year’s Laureates for the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences brought rigorous impact evaluation and randomized control trials to inform many areas of international development, which has transformed a flourishing field of research.
What do you think are some of your most significant research accomplishments and why?
In the global space, we conducted the first rigorous impact evaluation of bringing in-service coaching and professional development into the early education arena. In the United States, I conducted one of the first studies on the effects of having a parent who is undocumented on children’s development. The status of children who are in families with their parent(s) whom do not have access to the formal employment system is not simply an issue in the U.S., but also applies to refugees and stateless people worldwide. We are currently studying these effects in the ongoing flows of the Syrian and Rohingya refugee crisis, where we aim to bring substantial contributions to the ECD evidence base in the humanitarian context in relation to quality programming and play-based learning. Another area of interest for me is how to improve ECD programs at scale, as we recently have been able to do in the United States.
Where do you envision your field of research/area of study to look like in the future?
In the future, I am interested in exploring more culturally based models of ECD, and what is exciting about some of the work we are doing with BRAC is the emphasis on this notion. The Rohingya are not just a stateless group, but an indigenous ethnic group with their own language and cultural strengths; and I believe it is critical that we do not lose sight of the powerful role culture plays in shaping the daily routines, community contexts, and socialization practices of most of the world’s children. This is something which should place a particular emphasis on as we move forward scaling ECD systems in the future.