From Funke Olaode in Washington DC
Global and national leaders have been urged to step up and accelerate action and investments in nutrition and early childhood development (ECD) programmes as a critical foundation for equitable development and economic growth.
The call was jointly made by the World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake at the recent World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings in Washington DC, United States.
To follow up the suggestion, the two organisations announced the establishment of a new alliance that aims to make ECD a global policy, programming and public spending priority, to give all young children access to quality services that improve their health, nutrition, learning ability and emotional well-being.
According to them, advances in neuroscience and recent economic studies show that early childhood experiences have a profound impact on brain development and on subsequent learning, health, and adult earnings. Children who are poorly nourished and nurtured, or those who do not receive early stimulation, are likely to learn less in school and earn less as adults.
“Globally, millions of children under the age of five are at risk of never reaching their full developmental potential. One out of four children under five (159 million) are stunted due to poor nutrition, with numbers significantly higher in parts of Africa and South Asia.
“Nearly half of all 3 to 6-year-olds don’t have access to pre-primary education. In sub-Saharan Africa, 80 per cent are not enrolled in pre-primary programmes. The time has come to treat childhood stunting as a development and an economic emergency,” said Jim Yong Kim.
“How will countries compete in what will certainly be a more digitalised global economy in the future if a third or more of their children are stunted? Our failure to make the right investments in early childhood development is condemning millions of children to lives of exclusion. We can’t promise to equalise development outcomes, but we can insist on equalising opportunity.”
Speaking further, he said emerging scientific evidence also shows that prolonged exposure to adversity – such as that experienced by children growing up in countries affected by conflict or households affected by domestic violence – can cause toxic stress, a condition that can also inhibit peak brain development in early childhood.
Corroborating Kim, UNICEF executive director, Anthony Lake noted that “what we are learning about all the elements that affect the development of children’s brains – whether their bodies are well nourished, whether their minds are stimulated, whether they are protected from violence – is already changing the way we think about early childhood development. Now it must change the way we act.”
Through the new alliance, the World Bank Group and UNICEF are inviting governments, development partners, civil society, foundations and the private sector to make early childhood development a global and national development priority. The objective is to support country-led efforts to invest in nutrition, early stimulation and learning, and protection, and to engage with communities to drive demand for these high-quality ECD services for every child.
The benefits of ECD programmes are particularly strong for poor and disadvantaged children. ECD is also an investment in economic growth. Evidence suggests that an additional dollar invested in quality ECD programmes yields a return of between $6 and $17.
Recognising the growing understanding of ECD’s importance, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include an ECD target – the first time ECD has been explicitly included in global development goals.
SDG Target 4.2 aims to increase the percentage of children under five years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being. Although ECD falls under the SDG for education, it provides a natural link to other goals, too – including poverty reduction, health and nutrition, women and girls’ equality, and ending violence.