A new Lancet series finds that investing in early childhood development is essential to helping more children and communities thrive. - Ted Maly, UNICEF Rwanda Representative
The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, last week published a new series, Advancing Early Childhood Development: From Science to Scale, and some of the global findings are alarming. An unacceptably high rate of children under five in low- and middle-income countries – over 43% - are at risk for poor development.
We already know that the first few years of a child’s life are critical for development, and that deprivation of nutrition, stimulation, and protection during this time can result in serious long-term damage. We know that children thrive with parents who sing to them, talk to them, read to them, give them love and affection, and keep them safe and free from violence. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that early childhood development (ECD) interventions can have a dramatic and permanent impact in shaping a child’s future.
We should all take this as a call to action. “What children experience in the earliest days and years of life shapes and defines their futures,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “We need to turn that science into an alarm bell—because the development of millions of children is at urgent risk.”
According to the Lancet series, early childhood interventions may cost as little as 50 cents per child per year when combined with existing services, which is certainly a manageable cost in the grand scheme of agency budgets. Even more promising is that much of what needs to be done can be achieved by everyday mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, and caregivers.
Rwanda has emerged as an inspiring leader in early childhood development. Although there is still more work to be done, the Government of Rwanda has recognized early childhood interventions as an essential component of the country’s development plan. This builds on the common expression “Igiti Kigororwa Kikiri Gito,” that a tree’s growth can be shaped when it is still a seedling.
The Government of Rwanda has put words into action through investment in concrete ECD programmes, such as centre- and home-based childcare, home visits, and early literacy. We have found particular success through parenting education through the children’s radio programme Itetero and Urunana community theatre.
Prioritizing ECD at the national level is one way to stimulate economic growth. For every dollar invested in quality ECD programmes, there is a return of between 6 and 17 dollars. Rwanda has developed a “Parent Education Programme” with a new parenting curriculum specifically for ECD educators. Using tools like these, national training programmes have been included in the 2016-2021 ECD policy implementation plan.
This year, an ECD target was added to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is an important milestone, as it is the first explicit inclusion of ECD in global development goals. SDG Target 4.2 aims to increase the percentage of children under five who are developmentally on track in health, learning, and psychosocial well-being. ECD indicators have also been adopted into Rwandan policy for the first time, some of which are part of the global SDG framework on ECD.
Rwanda is on the right track to advance Early Childhood Development. It is now vital that we use the growing body of evidence to effect real changes for children, at both the community and policy levels.