Shakira on Importance of Early-Childhood Education

The Colombian pop singer Shakira, whose 2006 hit "Hips Don't Lie" is among the bestselling songs in history, has also made a name for herself around the world by championing the cause of early-childhood development. At the age of 18, she put much of the money she made from her budding music career into starting up the Barefoot Foundation, which has built six schools for poor children displaced by civil war in Colombia. She is also a founder and leader of ALAS (an acronym that stands for Latin America in Solidarity Action), a group that presses governments to help end poverty in Latin America by ensuring that all kids under 6 have access to health care, education, and proper nutrition. Shakira spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jimmy Langman after she and development economist Jeffrey Sachs lobbied for the cause with Latin American heads of state gathered in Portugal this week at the annual Ibero-American Summit. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Did you achieve what you set out to do in Portugal?
SHAKIRA: It was a great accomplishment to see five presidents there backing up our initiative on child-development strategies. With the help of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, we distributed a document from a group of experts we've worked with that includes recommendations to governments on how to create early-childhood development programs in their countries. Just as exciting, we were able to convince Argentine President Cristina [Fernández de] Kirchner to put early-childhood education high on the agenda of the 2010 summit, which she will host next year in Buenos Aires.

Why does this issue needs to be a higher priority?
There are 35 million people in Latin America who don't receive any kind of education or nutrition at all. The years between 0 to 6 are the most critical years in human life—it's when the brain develops, as well cognitive skills, motor skills, and social skills. And we know from several studies that investing in early-childhood development is the way to reduce poverty, boost economic growth, empower women, prevent illnesses, and prevent the thousands of deaths of children that happen every year to causes that can be avoided.

How will ALAS turn governmental promises into concrete actions?
First, we need to make sure that governments understand how important it is to invest in this sector of the population. Second, over the next year, we will work to create councils in each Latin American government—a group of people who everyday are thinking about how to provide universal coverage to children. The Ibero-American Summit next year is also going to be key to getting early-childhood development at the top of the agendas of each one of the heads of state. It's not going to be easy. But we will insist and insist until we make it happen, because the kids in Latin America are waiting for an answer.

Is the early-childhood development program started by Bachelet, which provides free education and health care to kids from poor Chilean families, a possible model?
Absolutely, it is a model for the rest of the region. Bachelet is a pediatrician who understands what it means for a child between the ages of 0 and 6 to receive proper nutrition and care. It's an experience that must be shared.

How has growing up in Colombia affected your views on this issue?
Latin America, unfortunately, is the most unequal region in the world. The gap between rich and poor is extremely big, and education for some is a luxury when it should be a birthright. Growing up in a country like Colombia, most of the kids who are born poor will die poor. Providing an education with nutrition—because no kid can learn on an empty stomach—offers a child a whole new opportunity for a dignified future. No kid dreams of becoming a militant, a drug trafficker, or a criminal; in the poorest countries and towns they will tell you they dream about becoming doctors, nurses, firefighters, and lawyers. It is society that corrupts their ideals and dreams.

Why are governments failing?
Believe it or not, there are no councils or departments that are specifically dedicated to early-childhood development in many governments. We have the resources to enroll every kid in school, so why are there 75 million kids around the world that have no access to any kind of education?