Early childhood is the most rapid period of development in human life. When well nurtured and cared for in their early years, children are more likely to survive, to have fewer illnesses, and to fully develop thinking, language, emotional and social skills.
Evidence shows, for example, that the right nutrition in the 1,000 days from conception to when a child turns two years old can save more than one million lives each year; improve an individual’s educational achievement and earning potential; and increase a country’s GDP by at least 2-3 per cent annually.
Cross-national data indicates that early childhood development (ECD) components such as health, nutrition, security and learning need urgent attention in nearly all African countries. If this stage of development is of such great importance, why are Africa’s ECD indicators so poor?
At the government level, limited public resources are one of the major reasons that ECD is neglected in Africa. In some countries, education is so under-funded at the primary and secondary level, that early learning is the exception rather than the norm.
To illustrate this, according to the World Bank, developed countries spend an estimated 0.43 per cent of GDP on pre-schools whereas a country such as Kenya spends just 0.1 per cent.
In Kenya, which has a national primary enrolment rate of nearly 80 per cent, it is only this year that the government has put plans in place to mainstream ECD into the education system and allocated close to $19 million in fiscal year 2012/13 for ECD interventions.
In addition to a lack of resources, a further reason that ECD is not well addressed is that due to its cross-cutting nature, it is either completely ignored or fragmented across government.
ECD policy is inter-sectoral, and operates at national, provincial, district and local levels. ECD service provision therefore falls within the policies and programmes of several ministries, the major responsibilities residing with education, social welfare, health, community development and gender.
With multiple ministries dealing with one issue, it is difficult to develop comprehensive programmes and efficiently target funding towards ECD.
At the community level, there are also socio-economic constraints and a lack of understanding and sensitisation around the importance of ECD.
Many families are not able to educate primary school-age children so the idea of focusing on pre-primary age children is not even considered.
Cultural beliefs are also a hindrance to parents prioritising ECD. In some cases, parents believe children cannot understand anything when they are young, and therefore do not see the importance of engaging and interacting with young children to improve their emotional and cognitive development.
Investing in young children is an essential component for the development of any national economy. Solutions to improving early childhood outcomes are readily available, affordable and cost-effective.
Governments can invest in promoting good nutritional practices including breastfeeding and appropriate healthy foods for infants; establish, support and promote community-based child care centres; and align sectoral programmes in health, education, gender and nutrition with ECD objectives.
These ECD interventions are highly cost-effective and save later government expenditure on much more expensive hospital care and rehabilitation.
We must therefore find a way for East Africa’s governments, civil society and communities to work together to develop complementary initiatives and activities.
Some governments in the region have made progress in incorporating ECD into their development strategies by engaging with stakeholders such as care-givers, parents, local administration, donors, and civil society organisations.
Tanzania, for example, with support from its development partners and civil society institutions such as the Tanzania ECD Network, has drafted a national integrated ECD policy that promotes a cross-sectoral approach to service delivery for young children and aligns government and donor priorities in ECD. Efforts are underway to get the policy enacted as a law.
Creating a national understanding of the importance of ECD should also result in a higher budget allocation for ECD as the Ministry of Finance and other key actors begin to comprehend its importance.
There is no single model for ECD policy but East Africa’s governments owe it to the future of their nations to advocate for, prioritise and support early childhood interventions.
Ciku Kimeria and co-writer Afua Sarkodie-Kupka are consultants at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, a strategic advisory firm