Yesterday World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake announced a new alliance around early childhood development (ECD) that aims to make investments in the early years a global priority. It is ‘morally the right thing to do, and economically the smart thing to do’, Kim urged. With this new impetus, there is simply no excuse for governments to neglect this fundamental area.
The science behind the significance of our first years might seem like common sense. Research has proven that cognitive stimulation and a stable environment – particularly for children who are 5 and under – are essential for healthy brain development. Going back even further, the right nutrition in the first 1000 days after conception can ensure that we don’t disadvantage children before they have even been born. These factors have an enduring impact on education, affecting both the likelihood of enrollment in school and lifelong academic performance. Neglected children will learn less and earn less than their peers.
But, in spite of the scientific consensus on this issue, and the spotlight on early childhood development and education in the new UN agenda, investment in this area is failing young children. The Inter-American Development Bank’s 2015 flagship publication, ‘The Early Years’, found that governments spend 3 times more per capita on children aged 6-11 than 0-5 in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example.
This might be explained by the previous silence of the UN’s development goals on the subject. Straddling areas as distinct as nutrition, disease, safety and education, ECD necessitates a comprehensive, co-operative approach which might not appeal to donors and decision makers with a particular focus.
The science alone should certainly convince them, but funders might also be swayed by the substantial return on investments in this area. Investing early means that returns on investment per dollar are on average 4 to 5 times higher.
As the world becomes more reliant on technology and artificial intelligence, it is likely that low-skilled jobs will soon be carved out of the workforce. Governments that do not act quickly to nurture the adults of the future could find themselves unable to compete, and even survive, in the new global economy.
It is crucial that the rallying cry of Kim and Lake spurs governments to step up their ECD investments now. A cross-sectoral ECD ‘alliance’ which brings together those who are working to reduce poverty, promote health and end violence could be just what the world needs.
Future Advocacy is currently supporting Theirworld on their upcoming global advocacy campaign around early childhood development. Find out more here.
By Cath Elliston