Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia
‘Children are today’s flowers and tomorrow’s fruit’ is a saying in Ethiopia and there is no better investment that cultivates the fruit and speaks to the ‘right in principle and right in practice’ mantra more than early childhood development.
Parents and communities want the best for their children and understand that the early years of a child’s life are crucial. However, they may not have the means or the knowledge on how to ensure their next generation best thrives.
Last week, the latest offering from the world-renowned Lancet, Advancing Early Childhood Development: from Science to Scale, showed that almost one in two – 43 per cent – of children under five in low-and middle-income countries are at risk of not achieving their cognitive potential. No country can risk losing nearly half of the brain potential of its youngest citizens – low- and middle-income countries least of all.
Advances in neuroscience show that experiences in early childhood have a profound impact on brain development and on subsequent learning and health. Children who are poorly nourished and nurtured, or those who do not receive early stimulation, are likely to learn less in school and go on to earn less as adults.
In Ethiopia, over 5 million children are stunted which has a serious impact on human development and economic growth. And currently, the most disadvantaged children in rural and hard to reach communities are either coming to grade 1 without having the necessary preparation or are enrolling late – under 40 per cent of children in Ethiopia have access to pre-school provision. Once in primary education, many are at risk of dropping out of school too early.
The good news is that early childhood development interventions, including parenting and care programmes, cost as little as 50 cents (US$) per child per year, when combined with existing services such as health – according to the Lancet Series. And much of what needs to be done at the community level can be achieved by mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings and caregivers.
The findings in the Series underscore the importance of increased global dedication to early childhood development. Earlier this year, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake signalled a renewed commitment to prioritizing investments in the youngest children when they announced a new alliance urging global and national leaders to step up and accelerate action and funding for nutrition and early childhood development (ECD) programmes. The Lancet estimates that individuals who suffer a loss of about a quarter of average adult income per year, while countries may forfeit up to as much as two times their current GDP expenditures on health or education. Consequences of inaction impact not only present but future generations.
When children have the opportunity to develop their cognitive capacity, they will pass similar or even better opportunities to their children when they grow up. Increasing investment in Ethiopia’s young children can break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Therefore, prioritizing ECD at the national level is a way for governments to stimulate economic growth. Evidence suggests that every dollar invested in quality ECD programmes brings a return of between US$6 and US$17. Moreover, research by
Nobel Laureate James Heckman found that the rate of return for investments in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children is 7-10 per cent per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.
This year, the importance of interventions in early childhood was also recognized by the inclusion of an ECD target in the Sustainable Development Goals – indeed, this is the first time ECD has been explicitly included in global development goals. SDG Target 4.2 aims to increase the percentage of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being.
For many children, lack of educational support at home is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching their full potential. In light of differing needs of families, a range of early childhood education services are offered in Ethiopia, including kindergarten, pre-primary class (‘O-class’) and several school readiness programmes. Parenting education programmes are also provided so families can learn about the importance of early nutrition, hygiene, care and stimulation.
The evidence presented this past week, combined with the current momentum globally, speaks for itself. We are well versed in the elements that affect the development of children’s brains – good nourishment, stimulated minds, and protection from violence. It is now vital that we use this growing body of evidence to effect real changes for children, at both the community and policy levels.
Early child development has to be put on the agenda for children’s rights. In Ethiopia, UNICEF, with the support from partners, takes an integrated approach to addressing early childhood development within Ethiopia’s Early Childhood Care Education Policy.
We owe it to our future generations to prioritize and invest in young children. It is our moral, economic, and social imperative to enable all children to reach their full potential.