Marta Arango

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2006
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Marta Arango's work was prepared when Marta Arango was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006 .


Marta Arango has revolutionized early childhood care, education and development in Colombia by including families, communities, and childcare professionals. Her approach prepares youngsters for effective learning prior to entering the conventional school system.

The New Idea

Marta Arango’s method provides intellectual, physical, and emotional attention to young children from impoverished neighborhoods. Her model has transformed early childhood care and educational programs around the world, helping more than ten million families. Marta’s organization, the International Center for Education and Human Development (CINDE), is unique in its focus on communities of support—including parents and childcare professionals—which provide the foundation and preparation youngsters need to succeed in the conventional school system. When Marta established CINDE in 1977, she wanted to bridge the gap between education theory and practice. She founded her program on three elements commonly used in working with children, but have since become the norm due to her success and influence. First, she focused on children under 6 years old (though today CINDE now includes integrative programming to children 6 to 18 years). Second, CINDE explored health and environmental factors that affect a child’s wellbeing, such as personal hygiene, malaria prevention, household nutrition, community, and environmental protection. Finally, instead of working only with the children, Marta created programs that trained the trainers—parents, siblings, childcare professionals. This enabled the family to become more invested in the children’s development, as well as to sustainably build their capacities to meet their continued educational and emotional needs.

The Problem

Colombia has one of the highest poverty rates in South America. The effect on families and children can be overwhelming. While significant achievements have been made in lowering the maternal and infant mortality rate, it remains high due to poor access to prenatal, postnatal, and institutional obstetric care. There are over one million working children between 5 and 17 years in Colombia. Armed conflict has displaced more than one million children have been displaced in the last 15 years due largely to internal conflict. These statistics reflect the surface of a much deeper, systemic problem facing Colombia and most developing countries. Most notably, children from the poorest areas have few opportunities to develop their intellectual, emotional, and physical capabilities before they enter the public school system. Pre-school enrolment in Colombia is very low, despite the increase from 31.6 percent in 1993 to 46.8 percent in 2000. Without pre-school, children start school at a disadvantage and rarely catch up; instead, many fall further behind and drop out. Given the desperate conditions in which the poorest families live, it was no surprise to Marta that children and families with severe physical, nutritional, and emotional problems are not able to learn and function as easily within the education system as children and families whose basic needs are consistently met. When they are continually fighting against the effects of diarrhea, malaria, inadequate sanitation, and family disputes, children are not able to enjoy the benefits of a basic education, and their families are not able to support them. Prior to founding CINDE, no national institution or program took responsibility for addressing these social inequalities and injustices that affect early childhood development. Marta recognized that without a national strategy to prepare children and their families to enter the school system, national education systems would not help them to reach their potential.

The Strategy

Marta’s strategy focuses on the social and environmental factors that play a large part in the early years of a child’s life—including their families, communities, and access to healthcare. Marta returned to Colombia from the U.S. in the late 1970s in order to take what she had learned as a doctoral student of curriculum and sociolinguistics and adapt it to life in Colombia. Working with her husband, she founded CINDE as a nonprofit research and development institution with three main objectives: to research and develop social education projects to become the models for education and human development for young children; to train mature professionals who have demonstrated their potential to develop and implement similar projects; and, to influence national policy to improve the quality of educational programs for Colombian children.Marta and her husband set out to help children under 6 prepare for elementary school. They quickly realized that children couldn’t learn unless someone addressed environmental obstacles, such as rampant malaria, limited potable water, poor household and personal hygiene. As a result, they designed an integrative strategy to account for these important socio-environmental conditions affecting children’s development. CINDE offered educational programs to children up to 3 years, to mothers with children from 3 to 6 years, and child-to-child care and learning. They also established processes for improving the environment, improving family nutrition, and encouraging community organizing. CINDE provided diverse programming for the families—intended to train the people with the greatest interest in the child’s development. Specifically, the programs were designed to increase the adults’ ability to become empowered and confident; better equipped to support their children physically and emotionally. CINDE developed opportunities for the adults to become community leaders in issues related to education and childcare. Marta knew strengthening the entire family was necessary for successful and sustainable early childhood development.

At the community level, CINDE took several steps to improve the learning environment. Working with the community organization PROMESA, community centers and pharmacies were established; new schools and libraries were built; housing projects were carried out; and production groups were created to raise household income. At the professional level, CINDE developed a postgraduate program to prepare others to spread CINDE’s strategy and replicate it throughout the world. Currently, there are five facilities, four in Colombia and one in the United States, which offer Masters Degrees in Education and Human Development, Educational and Social Development, and a Doctorate in Social Sciences with an emphasis on childhood and youth development. These programs are complimented by a rigorous research and development initiative that continually studies and updates theory and practice in early childhood education. The results from these studies are disseminated though a specialized resource center, as well as institutional alliances with UNESCO, UNICEF, Save the Children, and ChildWatch. During the first 10 years in Chocó, CINDE expanded from 4 communities to 36; the percentage of live births increased from 85 to 88 percent and infant mortality rates decreased from 12 to 8 percent; children are staying in school longer and learning more; and the incidence of diarrhea has nearly disappeared. The impressive results from the Chocó program, combined with the integral and adaptive structure of CINDE, facilitated the Center’s rapid expansion. Moreover, Marta has been dedicated to systematizing and disseminating the lessons learned from her work since she began. After starting with 100 families in Chocó, CINDE has impacted the lives of more than 10 million families in 27 countries around the world. With an initial focus on children younger than 6 years, CINDE now includes programming for all ages of youth and has trained more than 2,000 professionals with postgraduate degrees. Infant mortality rates have declined and literacy rates have increased among CINDE’s participants. In at least five countries—Colombia, Venezuela, Perú, Panamá, Indonesia— her program has been adopted by the national government as the standard for educating and caring for children and youth. Marta’s most recent initiative, “Colombians Helping Colombians” is dedicated to creating the institutional structures and opportunities for Colombian children to become part of the solution to the country’s decades-old internal conflicts. She wants to establish 100 family and community centers and support networks for fathers, mothers, and children in marginal areas of Colombia—offering methods to enable children and youth to realize their full potential as individuals and peace builders.

The Person

Marta began as a teacher without a degree in Colombia. After demonstrating her ability to adapt to professional challenges and engage her students, she received a scholarship to study in the U.S. Graduating with her masters, she married an American professor and moved to Berkeley, California, to pursue a PhD in sociolinguistics. She always planned to return to Colombia to translate her studies into practice. As it became clear that her first husband was not interested in moving to Colombia, she decided to get a “cordial” divorce and kept working towards her goal. After various research opportunities in the U.S., she got the chance to work with a professor on applied education methodologies. Within a few years, the professor came to share Marta’s life dream of developing CINDE. After getting married, they set out to establish a postgraduate education program in Venezuela, and quickly moved to Colombia to begin work in Chocó. In 2004, Marta’s husband and partner passed away. Today, Marta is 69 years old and wants to start a new generation of CINDE programs in Colombia and around the world. She has the freedom to travel and support CINDE programming, as well as the spirit and energy to share her experiences and tackle new adventures.