The immediate past Secretary General, United Nations (UN), Ban Ki-moon once said that early childhood development (ECD) can help drive the transformation the world hopes to achieve over the next 15 years. In this piece, VICTOR OKEKE writes on the value of early childhood education towards achieving the SDGs.
The early childhood period is considered to be the most important developmental phase throughout a lifespan.
Healthy early child development (ECD, which include the physical, social/emotional, and language and cognitive domains of development, each equally important, strongly influences well-being, obesity/stunting, mental health, heart disease, competence in literacy and numeracy, criminality, and economic participation throughout life.
What happens to the child in the early years is critical for the child’s developmental trajectory and life course.
According to Dr Pia Britto, a Senior Advisor on Early Childhood Development at the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), life’s early years have a profound impact on a child’s future. When loved, nourished and cared for in safe and stimulating environments, children develop the skills they need to embrace opportunity and bounce back from adversity.
But nearly 43 per cent of children under 5 in low- and middle-income countries are not getting the nutrition, protection and stimulation they need. This diminishes both the child’s potential and sustainable growth for society at large.
The good news is that early childhood presents an incomparable window of opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. The right interventions at the right time can counter disadvantage and boost a child’s development.
Strengthening early childhood development is key to achieving almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on poverty, hunger, health (including child mortality), education, gender, water and sanitation, and inequality.
In the words of UN Secretary-General/ Ban Ki-moon: “Early childhood development can help drive the transformation we hope to achieve over the next 15 years. This is a pivotal time. … Too many countries have yet to make early childhood development a priority. We need to invest more, not just in education, but in health and protection. We need to target our investments and interventions to reach children at greatest risk of being left behind. The Sustainable Development Goals recognise that early childhood development can help drive the transformation we hope to achieve over the next 15 years.”
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a new, universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years.
The SDGs follow and expand on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were agreed by governments in 2001.
Meanwhile, an education specialist with UNICEF, Swadchet Sankey has called on the whole levels of government in Nigeria to improve investment in reducing the high level of disease burden among children under five years.
Speaking in Kano on the first day of a 2-day media dialogue on Early Childhood Development organised by UNICEF and the Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB) of the Federal Ministry of Information, Sankey said the Lancet Medical Journal Survey (2016) showed that globally, 250 million children are at risk of not reaching their full potentials in education, health wise and overall development.
She added that across the world, 60 million children under-five are also at risk of not making the best of impact in life, with Nigeria ranking among the ten countries with the largest number of children at risk of poor development.
Sankey explained that 2016 National Survey indicates that 31 per cent of children under the age of five are moderately or severely underweight in Nigeria, adding that, malnutrition negatively impacts on learning as well it as makes children more susceptible to deadly diseases.
She listed UNICEF recommended policies to ensuring that Nigerian children fare well in early development and are protected from killer diseases to include: two years of free pre-primary education, six months of paid maternity leave; and four weeks of paid paternity leave.
Nigeria currently has just three months of paid maternity leave, only one year of free pre-primary education and no paternity leave at all. Only about one in every 10 pre-primary children are enrolled in early education activities.
“The goal of any investment in early childhood development is for all children in Nigeria, whether poor or rich from conception through to school to attain their development potential”, she said.
Also speaking at the media dialogue, representative of the Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Omokore Oluseyi, identified HIV/AIDS, malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and rising cases of malnutrition as the major contributors to deaths among children.
“Like I mentioned, these diseases as they kill children, also affect their development milestones”, he said
He however assured that the federal government is committed to improving outcomes from interventions targeted at drastically reducing infant and under-five mortality.
Indeed, ECD is included in Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
It is specifically mentioned in target 4.2: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
According to executive director, UNICEF, Anthony Lake, “We now know that it takes more than education for a child’s brain to develop – a lot more.”
Experts say that a developing brain needs multiple inputs – health, nurturing care, protection, and enrichment. Incorporating these multiple inputs into early childhood development efforts can, indeed foster the developmental potential of young children. At the same time, it will also maximize the multiplier effect ECD has on many of the global goals.
For example, on goal one which deal with eradicate poverty, UNICEF says that ECD has been documented to be one of the most cost-effective strategies for poverty alleviation.
Early in life, when the brain has the maximum capacity to develop in the fullness of its complexity, children learn the skills that will help them flourish in a 21st-century economy.
On goal two, which is on ending hunger and improving nutrition, it is seen that children who receive early stimulation with nutrition supplements have better outcomes than children who only receive nutrition supplements, thereby amplifying the impact of nutrition.
Furthermore, ECD interventions buffer the negative effect of stress thereby improving absorption of nutritional intake.
Also, goal three hopes to ensure healthy lives and correlatively, ECD interventions early in life set a trajectory for good lifelong health. It can lead to lower incidence of cardiovascular and non-communicable diseases and can increase well-being. With ECD, not only do children survive, they thrive.
Learning begins at birth which is the thrust of goal four to ensure lifelong learning and ECD interventions have proved to be the foundation for later learning, academic success and productivity.
A study on increasing pre-school enrolment in 73 countries found higher future wages of US$6 (N1, 800) to US$17 (N5,100) per dollar invested, which indicates potential long-term benefits ranging from US$11 (N 3,300) to US$34 billion (N 12 trillion).
Also, the nexus between early childhood development and women’s economic empowerment is clear. Greater investment in high-quality and affordable childcare is linked to greater opportunities for women’s economic advancement and empowerment. This is objective of goal five – achieve gender equality.
Goal eight targets promoting decent work for all and adequate childcare is a critical element of the decent work agenda. Investments in professionalization of the early childhood workforce contribute to full and productive employment, especially for women.
In the same light, goal 10 which reduces inequality within and among countries can also be achieved with early childhood education.
Inequality often begins before birth. ECD is a powerful equalizer. The first few years of a child’s life offers a window of opportunity to provide interventions that can close the inequality gap between children born into disadvantage and those born with many advantages.
Disadvantaged children who receive ECD services earn up to 25 per cent more as adults compared with children who did not receive the services and almost catch up in earnings to their non-disadvantaged peers.
ECD also comes to play in goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. ECD requires safe spaces that have sustainable, natural, and biophilic features, thereby providing the entry point for cities and human settlements.
For goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption- ECD programmes set in place, patterns of consumption, attitudes towards conservation and behavioural practices that will preserve the environment. What children learn early lasts a lifetime.
And goal 16 which is on promoting peaceful societies in deference of ECD because early childhood interventions have the potential to promote healthy neurobiology, foster resilience in children and instil values and behaviours that can reduce violence and promote peace.
ECD interventions have been shown to lead to lower rates of violence in the home and greater social cohesion in communities.
Measurement of early childhood development at global, regional and national levels can serve as a powerful tool to revitalize global partnerships. UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) provide population-level data that is suitable to measure target 4.2 of the SDGs. And that is the focus of the seventeenth goal- Strengthen the means of implementation.
Indeed, the explicit reference to ECD in Target 4.2 is a landmark in the history of global policy development, but ECD is about so much more that this single education target. Quality ECD is fundamental to achieving the SDGs related to poverty and inequality, gender and social inclusion, health, well-being and the promotion of sustainable futures for all.
Scaling-up multi-sectoral ECD to deliver on the SDGs requires ambitious policy vision, combined with robust but pragmatic implementation strategies. ECD is not a ‘one size fits all’. A range of policy pathways can deliver quality ECD, building on existing infrastructure and, crucially, on family and community aspirations to support their children’s development.
Scaling-up national systems also requires strong governance as well as targeted resourcing if ECD programmes are to deliver on their transformative potential.
And investments in ECD are fiscally smart, given the multiplier effect of ECD across several goals. But, they are also scientifically credible and morally correct.
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