Investing in Early Years of a Child, Elixir to Nigeria’s Challenges

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Amaka Momah-Haruna

Global Economists have predicted that the 21st century will be led by countries that have begun investing in children that are in their early years. Nigeria can be amongst this league of nations if it begins to make strategic long-term investments in children in their early years (0-5 years), which spans the period of pregnancy till when the child transitions to Primary 1. It goes without saying that the whole span of childhood is important, however science has shown that these early years are a crucial period because 90 percent of the total brain development occurs before the age of five. Therefore, developmental delays and deficiencies experienced in this period are difficult, if not impossible to compensate for later in life. On May 23rd, the Nurturing Care Framework was launched at the World Health Assembly- this framework which is built upon state of the art evidence, states categorically that young children require Nurturing Care – care which ensures health, nutrition, responsive-care giving, safety and security and early learning to reach their developmental potential. In simple terms, between the ages of 0-5 years, a child needs equal exposure to all these components to lay the foundation for future productivity in adulthood. In this regard, the status quo indicates that Nigeria is significantly behind its peers.

Every year, Nigeria loses approximately 900,000 children and women of childbearing age. This makes the country the second largest contributor to under–five and maternal mortality in the world. 43 percent of children in Nigeria under five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition (Stunting). This translates to approximately 13 million children that will die or not develop to their full potential. Despite the wealth of evidence on the critical importance of early learning for long-term cognitive development, only 35.6 percent of children age 3-5-year-olds are attending an organised early childhood education programme. Approximately 1 in 10 children experience their first incident of physical violence such as choking or being threatened with a gun or knife at 5 years or younger. Furthermore, 1.4 million IDP children urgently require child protection services in the North East due to the insurgency and civil unrest. This situation is aggravated by the fact that the sectors with direct impact on early childhood development (ECD) outcomes – Education, Health and Women & Social Affairs often operate in silos with limited inter-sectoral collaborations and linkages that would enable them leverage on each other’s platforms to improve ECD outcomes.

Beyond the ethical issues of human rights, investing in young children is one of the smartest investments that a country can make. In several countries, the rate of return on investments on early childhood interventions have been shown to have benefit-cost ratio as high as $17 for every $1 spent. The short-term benefits such as enhanced school readiness and retention and improved physical & mental health ensure that in the long-term, the country has a highly-skilled productive workforce. Therefore, it is an essential element towards breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. In this regard, leading economic experts are increasingly advocating for increased global investment in “cerebral infrastructure” in comparison to physical infrastructure such as roads and buildings.

Globally, several countries have placed early childhood development high on their national development agenda through the enactment of enabling policies and legislation. These range from high income countries such as Sweden with one of the lowest under-5 mortality rates and best learning outcomes in the world to lower middle-income countries such as Cuba where children have significantly better health outcomes and advanced language development in comparison to its surrounding richer neighbours. Cuba particularly stands out because, early on, the government acknowledged the need to integrate education, health, child protection and social protection services. To achieve this, it established a national ECD programme termed ‘Hullios’ which over the last 35 years has provided children under six and their families a system of integrated services that aims to ensure the maximum development of each child’s potential. The key strength of this programme, is its emphasis on leveraging on existent platforms whereby in early childhood education institutions, children are provided with quality health and nutrition services. There is also emphasis on the mandatory one-year maternal leave to encourage exclusive breastfeeding which has been shown to have a significantly beneficial effect on the child’s mental intelligence.

These countries have been able to successfully achieve this because their welfare policies emphasize the civic role of the state in facilitating the quality of life and well-being for its citizens. In its current state, the Nigerian Child-Care system presents a significant number of opportunities that can be better harnessed to improve child development outcomes. For example, the recent expansion of the pre-primary education provides an excellent platform for parental education on caregiver-child interactions that can improve the child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development. It also provides a platform to increase a young child’s access to essential health and nutrition services that will ensure that a child attending pre-primary school is also being properly nourished as this significantly impacts intellectual development and in turn educational progress. Secondly, the platform that routine ante-natal care provision provides across the 30,000 Primary Health Care Centers in Nigeria could be better leveraged to provide expectant mothers with information and services on nutrition and stimulation practices that will benefit her child. Furthermore, the mechanisms being utilised to increase access to immunisation for children 0-9mths can be better harnessed to provide birth registration services, which target the same age-group and in the long term, can contribute significantly to improving the very low (23 percent) birth registration rates in the country. Birth Registration can help protect against violation of rights, such as child labour or early marriage.

Nigeria, as a nation has shown some commitment to improving the lives of its young children by the development of the National Multi-Sectoral Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy (2009). However, while the policy successfully defined key sectoral priorities and strategies, it failed to create a multi-sectoral framework with actions that could create linkages and guide inter-sectoral collaborations therefore, the functioning of this structure and the implementation of the policy has been poor. In this regard, there is a need to review this policy to ensure that its strategies are reflective of current evidence, that it has a truly multi-sectoral approach to early childhood development and that there is strong political leadership at the highest level. These are the actions that Senegal– a neighboring country took, which led to the reduction of its stunting rates from 30 percent in the 1990s to 19 percent in 2014 with subsequent improvements in national GDP.

As we mark another Children’s Day, it is essential that our policy makers focus on the important issues such as ensuring that children in their early years have access to healthcare, quality education and protected from the detrimental effects of poverty and insurgency as compared to allocating valuable resources to children’s day parades and jamborees. The Global Philanthropist – Bill Gates who recently visited Nigeria, said it best when he urged the government to increase its investment in health and education to achieve the surge of the economic activity that Nigeria is capable off. It goes without saying that the first place to begin this investment is in young children who are its future.

– Momah-Haruna is a Public Health Specialist|Child and Adolescent Development Expert