Prof. Nirmala Rao


PECERA 2018 Third Keynote Address by Prof. Nirmala Rao

Title: Wise Investments for a Right Start to Life: Evidence-led decisions for the Asia Pacific



Three strands of evidence have led to researchers calling for increased funding to support the early years of development. First, studies on early brain development have shown that the brain develops most rapidly in the first years of life, and that it is positively affected by environmental stimulation. Second, research has drawn attention to the larger economic returns of government investment in early childhood compared to adulthood. Third, program evaluation research has indicated that early education promotes child development and school readiness in both developing and developed countries.  Participation in early childhood programs helps reduce risks and supports development and can break the cycle of inequity faced by millions of children and families.


The recent Lancet series on Early Childhood Development (ECD) has highlighted that 43% of children under five years of age (about 250 million children living in low-and middle-income countries) are at risk for not achieving their developmental potential. The series highlighted the importance of nurturing care to promote development and of adopting a multi-sectoral framework across the lifespan. On the basis of systematic reviews of early childhood interventions across multiple sectors, the series articulated interventions known to effectively enhance ECD. This paper will consider evidence on the effectiveness of family support and strengthening programmes, multigenerational nurturing care packages and early learning and protection interventions. It will focus on studies in the Asia Pacific. Investment in the early years is vital for long-term gains to the individual and the nation and to support the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.



Nirmala Rao is Serena H.C. Yang Professor in Early Childhood Development and Education, Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong.  A Developmental and Chartered (Educational) Psychologist by training, she has been recognised internationally for her research on early childhood development and education in Asian cultural contexts. This research has focused on (i) the development of psychometrically robust and culturally-sensitive measures of both Early Childhood Development and the quality of Early Childhood Education; (ii) early educational policy in the Asia-Pacific; (iii) evaluation of early childhood programmes with the objective of finding out why they have the effects that they do; and (iv) culture, policy and pedagogy in the early years. 


Professor Rao is recognized as a leader in shaping the research and policy agenda related to the quality of early childhood education in the Asia Pacific region and has been credited with enhancing the international visibility of regional research in early childhood through her scientific publications.  She has participated in international meetings as an expert/specialist, written advocacy materials, and undertaken consultancies for UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, DFID, OECD and the Brookings Institute.  Notable recent projects are the development of the East-Asia Pacific Child Development Scales which won a Best of UNICEF Research (2015) award, being a core member of the team that developed the Measurement of Early Learning Environments survey as part of inter-agency project on Measurement of Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (Brookings Institute, 2016) and the development of the conceptual framework and pilot items for the Survey of Teachers in Pre-primary Education (UNESCO, 2016).


Professor Rao has published widely and has authored over 100 international peer refereed journal articles, books, book chapters and research reports and presented over 50 invited papers on early childhood development and education, child development and educational policy, and educational psychology.  She also serves on the Editorial Board for several journals and is currently an Associate Editor of Child Development and has recently completed a term as Associate Editor of Developmental Psychology. She was a member of the Steering Committee for the 2017 Lancet Series on Early Child Development. Professor Rao is also actively involved in professional organisations that aim to promote the well-being of children through research and advocacy efforts.


In addition, she has had significant administrative leadership roles at The University of Hong Kong within the Faculty of Education from Associate Dean to Interim Dean. Her main contribution in terms of administrative service from 2010 to 2016 was to the Graduate School that overseas research postgraduate education in all ten Faculties of The University of Hong Kong. She was in charge of strategic leadership and the day-to-day matters as Associate Dean (2010-2013), Director of Graduate Studies (2012-2013) and Dean (2014-2016).