Scaling up early childhood development interventions in Africa

It’s Universal Children’s Day. Celebrate with us and #GoBlue!
A school children smiles at the camera. Avondale Infant School, Zimbabwe. CREDIT: GPE/Carine Durand

This is the 13th blog post published in 2018 as part of the collaborative effort launched in 2017 between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

Universal Children’s Day was established in 1954 and is celebrated on November 20 each year to offers each of us an inspirational entry-point to advocate, promote and celebrate children's rights, translating into dialogues and actions that will build a better world for children. November 20 also marks the day on which the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.

This year’s theme is “Children are taking over and turning the world blue” and it aims to promote a world where every child is in school, safe from harm and able to fulfil their potential.

Early childhood: A key window of opportunities

Two revolutionary bodies of research have redefined the way we think about early childhood development. One is the evidence on the large positive economic and social returns from investments in the early years of life. The other is the knowledge generated from advances in neuroscience on brain development, which underlines the importance of the nurturing qualities of the environments where children grow and learn.

Both indicate that early childhood presents a crucial window of opportunity for providing an integrated package of development services that match this sensitive period in brain development.

The ability to translate the science of early childhood development into effective policies and programs and scaling up their implementation has been variable in many ways.

The importance of investing in early childhoold, especially in Africa

The recognition of early childhood as the foundation for sustainable development is inherent in the Global 2030 Agenda, which gives a prominent place for children’s survival and development. While all Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets aim at creating enabling environments for children to survive and thrive, five of them explicitly relate to young children: they seek to end all forms of poverty, malnutrition, preventable deaths, abuse, exploitation and violence, as well as ensure the provision of access to quality pre-primary education and a legal identity right from birth.

These commitments have been taken at the highest level by world governments and they will without doubt require substantial additional investments, both in terms of financial resources and human capabilities.

By 2050, Africa is expected to account for more than half of the world’s population growth. Around 42% of the world’s births will take place in Africa. By 2100, if current trends persist, around 50% of all the world’s children will be African. This growth presents a highly valuable human-capital asset.

This has implications for policy-makers who need to invest in this growing population of children to reap the benefits of this demographic dividend. This in turn will depend on preschool children being developmentally on track, to stay in school, learn and successfully complete their secondary education at the very least. Investing in universal access to quality early childhood development services will be a major step toward achieving this outcome.

Challenges: prioritizing ECD

The challenge for Africa is to scale up early child development interventions in order to derive the desired far-reaching benefits of early investment. The delivery of ECD services is too often fragmented across health, education, child protection and social protection.

If we are to accelerate progress in translating the research-based evidence into effective practice, policies and programs, the delivery of ECD services cannot be fragmented but should instead be provided as integrated and holistic interventions.

Political prioritization is essential in creating this kind of enabling environment for advancing ECD interventions. Managing such an integrated ECD system requires high levels of inter-sectoral collaboration and coordination from policy makers through to administrators and implementers who work synergistically to ensure the child’s rights to health, nutrition, safety and security, responsive caregiving and early learning.

Inequalities begin in the first days of life and widens over time. By the time children reach school, disadvantaged children have accumulated learning deficits, which have long-term consequences on their life chances later. This is why governments must strive to close the inequity gap right from the early days. Without government’s intervention, disadvantaged young children, because of poverty, ethnic and linguistic minorities, gender, geographical remoteness or disabilities, are at risk of never developing their full potential. Research shows that the impact of quality childcare services is highest among this group of children.

Mechanisms to effectively scale up ECD programs

While the science of early childhood development is relatively new, Africa has generated a wealth of indigenous knowledge in early child development practices from community leaders and families. Much can be gained by bringing together the many sources of knowledge and integrating it in the design and implementation of ECD programs.

This has not only the advantage of being context-specific and meaningful, but it also empowers the community as an important decentralized service delivery channel in relation to centrally-directed interventions.

It takes time to put in place all the necessary mechanisms for effective implementation at scale. While there is no prescriptive approach, programs can be inspired, adapted and built based on the implementation successes and challenges of other countries that have scaled up programs from a system-wide perspective.

The Inter-Country Quality Node on Early Childhood Development (ICQN-ECD), hosted and led by Mauritius, is one such platform for African countries to build leadership capacity to accelerate progress in scaling up ECD interventions. The uniqueness of the ICQN approach is the sharing of knowledge through a community of practice and peer learning.

The ICQN is also committed to drive the agenda of the recently launched Early Childhood Education and Development (ECED) Cluster under the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25). This core new thematic cluster serves as an essential lever to amplify the work of all key major stakeholders on the continent in realizing the Africa we want for our children.

We believe that early childhood development is the key to unlock Africa’s future success and if you also think so, share this blog and make our call heard!