Four innovative approaches to childcare in informal settlements

Four innovative approaches to childcare in informal settlements

Author: Anupama Nallari

For millions of women and families living in poor urban areas, the lack of access to childcare services can be devastating. It can lead to lost incomes, higher caregiving burdens and psychological stress – and it affects the quality of care that children receive. Here, Anupama Nallari outlines why affordable, quality and proximate childcare services are so vital in informal urban settlements – and presents four innovative approaches that offer a way forward.

Why is childcare such an important issue?

In 2010, I spent a few months in informal settlements in India collecting data for my research. In my conversations with caregivers, I became aware of their struggles to keep up with everyday chores while caring for their young. They spoke of their exhaustion and backache from carrying both their children and buckets of water. Of balancing cooking, washing and cleaning in small and often unventilated rooms while tending to recurring episodes of diarrhoea, coughs, colds and fevers. Many spoke of how they had no choice but to go to work and leave their children unattended at home, except for the occasional check-in from a neighbour.

This brought home to me how important access to affordable, quality and proximate childcare is, especially in urban informal settlements. ‘Childcare’ broadly refers to formal or informal caregiving services for young children from birth to formal school-entry age. Childcare can take place at home, with extended family or within childcare centres. Quality, affordable and proximate childcare can make a huge difference to both caregivers and their young. It can reduce the caregiver’s stress and exhaustion levels. And it can enable them to provide the nurturing and responsive care that is so critical for children in their early years.

The growing need for better childcare

According to the World Bank there are 350 million children below age 6 globally in need of quality childcare.[i],[ii] In particular, there is a growing need for institutionalised childcare in cities, especially in informal settlements and poorer neighbourhoods. This need has increased exponentially due to changes in migration, family structure, urbanisation and women’s employment.

Migrating to urban areas often means that women are distant from their extended family. As a result, they receive less informal childcare support. Urban areas are also more expensive, which requires both parents to work for a living. Meanwhile, the gap in access to affordable, quality and proximate childcare services has only increased with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It has pushed 200 million more children worldwide into poverty. And it has contributed to the permanent closure of smaller community and privately run childcare centres that have been unable to sustain themselves.[iii]

Yet despite these issues, the parents I spoke to seldom sent their children to the few operational private-sector and state-run childcare services available – even with their struggles of juggling childcare, everyday chores and securing basic services. They said that these childcare services were either unaffordable, operated for too few hours, had high child–staff ratios, lacked quality and/or were mired by corruption.[iv]

Taken together, these challenges have resulted in greater impacts on the well-being of young children in urban low-income settlements. So what can be done to improve the situation?

Why early childhood development services are vital

If young children in informal settlements are to reach their full developmental potential, increasing childcare provision alone is not enough. Instead, they need to be supported by a comprehensive range of early childhood development (ECD) services.

For example, research shows that urban poor children face far higher stunting and malnutrition rates than their wealthier peers.[v] The most effective ECDs address a range of issues such as immunisations, routine health checks, nutritional intake, education and learning, water and sanitation, protection and responsive caregiving – Unicef, the World Health Organization (WHO) and others recommend taking this integrated approach.[vi] ECD services can also reduce urban inequities, empower women and increase productivity.[vii] And as examples such as the Kidogo model described below demonstrate, stepping up formal childcare provision can be a pathway to employment for community-based caregivers. Investments in quality ECD services – particularly those that reach the urban poor – can enable children to develop to their full potential and fulfil each child’s right to thrive.

But implementing this approach – particularly on a national scale – can be challenging. Engaging multiple sectors and levels of government can lead to limited accountability and ownership.[viii] For example, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme was first set up in India in 1975. The ICDS has had an impressive coverage, reaching 89 million women. But it has failed to have the intended impact on child development. The scheme has suffered from poor monitoring and evaluation, a lack of coordination between sectors and its inability to reach most of the urban poor.[ix]

Innovative solutions to childcare provision

To help bridge this gap, a range of alternative approaches to government or private-sector childcare services have been developed in different countries. From ‘mamapreneur’ childcare franchises in East Africa to mobile crèches in India, the following examples offer ways forward to providing affordable, quality and proximate childcare in urban informal settlements.

          1. Kidogo: taking an entrepreneurial approach in East African slums

Kidogo is a scalable childcare model that has been in operation for over five years in urban informal settlements in East Africa. Kidogo is a private-sector social franchise model that runs two model childcare centres and supports women entrepreneurs (or ‘mamapreneurs’) to start or grow their own childcare micro-businesses in their local communities. Kidogo provides each mamapreneur with the training, resources, entrepreneurial skills and quality assurance she needs to raise the quality of childcare she provides. Kidogo also provides access to health and nutritional resources, and supports physical improvements to childcare centres. Impact evaluations cited on their website and supported by the Aga Khan Foundation show a 5% decrease in stunting rates and a 48% increase in emotional regulation – and that 98% of ‘graduates’ are at the top 5% of their class in their first year of primary school.[x]

         2. Mobile Creches: workplace childcare for informal workers in India

Mobile Creches is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in India. First set up in 1969, Mobile Creches now has more than 1,000 childcare centres in construction sites and informal settlements, caring for over 8 million children. Their programme supports children from birth to 12 years and includes three hot nutritional meals a day, immunisations and health checks, play-based learning and community engagement.

Mobile Creches depends on private donors for the majority of their funding with some support from the government. Evaluating impact has been challenging for Mobile Creches, as they largely serve a floating population of migrant children. However, there is some evidence showing improvements in the nutritional and immunisation status of children.[xi] The organisation’s strengths lie in building relationships with the community to improve caregiving at home and advocating for inclusive ECD policies to private companies and government agencies.

         3. Childcare for garment workers in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, the Unicef Better Business for Children initiative is working with the government and the ready-made-garment (RMG) sector to create better workplace environments. Textile workers have access to childcare, breastfeeding support and other family friendly policies while they are at work. There are also actions to strengthen communities where workers live, by addressing issues such as lack of access to water and sanitation. Similarly, Save the Children Bangladesh has an urban resilience project called Proyash, which works with RMG companies to set up childcare centres and to oversee quality and maintenance of these centres.

         4. Cooperatives: community-based childcare supported by government funding

In Brazil, India and Ghana, women’s cooperatives such as the Association of Collectors of Paper, Cardboard and Recyclable Material (Asmare) and the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) have been instrumental in establishing and procuring public funds for childcare centres that serve the needs of working women in informal sectors.[xii] These cooperatives address children’s health, education and nutritional needs. Most importantly, they also operate long hours and flexible shifts, enabling women to work and earn an income. An evaluation study comparing SEWA-run childcare centres to state-run ones shows that mothers of children attending SEWA centres have increased financial mobility and ‘peace of mind’. Their younger children have better attendance rates in primary school and their older children are less likely to drop out of school.6

Better childcare services: ways forward

These four approaches show the different entry points for alternative ECD services in informal settlements. They also highlight the importance of key partnerships for successful programme delivery and advocacy. In some cases, however, the long-term sustainability of such childcare centres is in question, particularly with regard to going to scale. For example, SEWA had 119 centres in 1999 but more than half have now been shut down due to government funding cuts. National-level childcare programmes, policies, investments and regulations are vital for the effective upscaling of quality institutionalised ECD services. But they can often take decades to materialise. Given this, how can alternative childcare services in urban informal settlements be better supported?

  • Governments should support alternative approaches, both in terms of finance and aligning these approaches with other sectoral services where possible.
  • Governments, NGOs and institutions should support monitoring and evaluation in terms of the impact these alternative approach programmes have on children and families, as well as their long-term sustainability.
  • Cities and local governments can also play a role in furthering access to affordable, quality and proximate childcare. Few cities have robust data on childcare needs and current provision. Mapping current childcare needs and existing provision using an equity lens can provide insights into where services are most needed.
  • Engage with caregivers to understand place-based needs for childcare (whether childcare is better located closer to homes, workplaces or other locations). This is crucial for the effective uptake of services.
  • Collaborate with grassroots federations in informal settlements. Many federations are members of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI). These organisations have worked for decades in urban poor settlements in several countries in Africa and Asia and have been the bedrock for facilitating sustainable change. Linking up with them will help tap into existing social networks, understand local needs, develop innovative local solutions and identify further strategies for scaling up ECD services in urban poor settlements.
Simine Alam - Save the Children

Simine Alam – Save the Children

About the author

Anupama Nallari is an independent research consultant who works at the intersections of child well-being and urbanisation, poverty, early childhood settings and public space.

I would like to thank Sarah Sabry and Valeria Kunz from Save the Children Switzerland, Elvira Thissen and Ankita Chachra from the Bernard van Leer Foundation for their invaluable insights on earlier versions of this post and Holly Ashley for her brilliant editorial support.




[i] World Bank (4 March 2021) Nearly 350 million children lack quality childcare in the world. Press release.

[ii] Devercelli, AE and Beaton-Day, F (2020) Better jobs and brighter futures: investing in childcare to build human capital. World Bank.

[iii] Grantham, K, Rouhani, L and Gupta, N (2021) Evidence review of the global childcare crisis and the road for post-COVID-19 recovery and resilience. IDRC.

[iv] These observations are also evidenced in a recent study: Moussié, R (2019) Extending childcare services to workers in the informal economy: policy lessons from country experiences. ILO and WEIGO.

[v] Kimani-Murage, EW, Muthuri, SK, Oti, SO, Mutua, MK, van de Vijver, S, Kyobutungi, C (2015) Evidence of a double burden of malnutrition in urban poor settings in Nairobi, Kenya. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0129943.; Menon, P, Ruel, MT and Morris, SS (2000) Socio-economic differentials in child stunting are consistently larger in urban than in rural areas. Food and Nutrition Bulletin 21(3): 82–89.

[vi] UNICEF, World Bank and WHO (2018) Nurturing care for early childhood development a framework for helping children survive and thrive to transform health and human potential.

[vii] Moussié, R (2021) Childcare services in cities: challenges and emerging solutions for women informal workers and their children. Environment and Urbanization 33(1).

[viii] Maureen Black, MM, Walker, SP, Fernald, LCH, Andersen, CT, DiGirolamo, AM, Lu, C, McCoy, DC, Fink, G, Shawar, YR, Shiffman, J, Devercelli, AE, Wodon, QT, Vargas-Barón, E and Grantham-McGregor, S for the Lancet Early Childhood Development Series Steering Committee (2017) Early childhood development coming of age: science through the life course. The Lancet 389(10064): 77–90.

[ix] Kumar, S and Banerjee, S (2015) Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme in the context of urban poor and slum dwellers in India: exploring challenges and opportunities. Indian Journal of Public Administration 61(1): 94–113.

[x] Aga Khan Foundation and Kidogo (2021) Building a brighter future for vulnerable children: an early childhood development (ECD) brief.

[xi] Sharma, K and Raman, V (2013) Need assessment for creches and child care services. Ministry for Women and Child Development, Government of India.

[xii] Moussié, R (2017) Women informal workers mobilizing for child care. WIEGO.



Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of Global Alliance – Cities 4 Children as a whole

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