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Early childhood development: How Zambia can accelerate meeting SDGs


THE best investment we can make as a society is optimising the early years of a child’s life. The emotional, social and physical development of young children directly affects their overall development. In order to maximise their future well-being we need to understand the importance in investing in every child.
The latest offering from the world-renowned Lancet, Advancing Early Childhood Development: from Science to Scale, showed that almost one in two (43 percent) – 249 million children under five in low- and middle-income countries are at increased risk of poor development due to extreme poverty and stunting. Millions of children are not living safe and healthy lives with access to the learning opportunities that build their skills for life.
The study confirmed that parents, caregivers and family members are by far the most important influential factors in a child’s life. Their support can play a vital role at all stages of a child’s development; and, conversely, their lack of support can undermine a child’s progress. The supportive roles they take in their children’s development make a difference in improving achievement and behaviour. The active involvement of parents can help promote a community in which children positively engage with their peers. The series also revealed that early childhood development interventions including parenting and care programmes cost as little as 50 cents (US) per child per year, when combined with existing services such as health.
Millions of children do not reach their full potential. This may be a result of their families’ income status and/or exclusion due to geographic location, ethnicity, disability and religion. They do not receive the appropriate levels of nutrition, care, stimulation and opportunities to learn. One out of four children under five (159 million worldwide) are stunted due to poor nutrition, with numbers significantly higher in parts of Africa and South Asia. Nearly half of all 3-to-6-year-olds across the globe don’t have access to pre-primary education. In sub-Saharan Africa, just one in five children are enrolled in pre-primary programmes.
In Zambia, only 25 percent of grade one entrants in 2015 had early childhood education experience at the time of entry in school, and the vast majority of these 25 percent were living in urban areas where ECD access is higher than in rural areas. However, Zambia is working to increase access to and quality of early childhood education aimed at helping children be better prepared for school as a foundation for future learning.
Advances in neuroscience show that experiences in early childhood have a profound impact on brain development and on subsequent learning and health. Children who are poorly nourished and nurtured, or those who do not receive early stimulation, are likely to learn less in school and go on to earn less, economically, as adults. Conversely, disadvantaged children who get adequate nutrition and educational opportunities in their early years, are more likely to experience long-term success throughout their school years, and indeed life.
The findings in the Lancet Series underscore the importance of increased global dedication to early childhood development. Earlier this year, World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim and UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake signalled a renewed commitment to prioritising investments in our youngest children when they announced a new alliance urging global and national leaders to step up and accelerate action and funding for nutrition and early childhood development programmes.
The Lancet estimates that individuals suffer a loss of about a quarter of average adult income per year, while countries may forfeit up to as much as two times their current GDP expenditures on health or education. Consequences of inaction impact not only present but future generations.
Therefore, Prioritising ECD at the national level is also a way for governments to stimulate economic growth. Evidence suggests that for every dollar invested in quality ECD programmes, a return of between $6 and $17 is delivered. Moreover, research by Nobel Laureate James Heckman found that the rate of return for investments in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children is 7-10 percent per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.
Investment in early childhood development programmes such as: child health and nutrition, early education, child protection and parenting education programmes can therefore foster critical skills in children, and, in the long term, boost the economy. The interdependency between health and nutrition on brain development and consequently on learning ability as well as effect of stress (i.e. child protection issues) on brain development requires a coordinated multi-sectoral approach to early childhood development in Zambia.
For many children, lack of educational support at home is one of the biggest obstacles. An ECD parenting education intervention supported by UNICEF in three districts of Katete, Petauke and Chadiza is raising awareness and aims to improve parenting skills that would lead to supportive and stimulating home environments for children’s development. So far, a multi-sectoral team of 80 trainers have been trained in the counselling of primary caregivers with ongoing advocacy for supporting the integration of ECD in national programmes of health, education, social welfare and community development in those districts. Caregivers of young children play an important role in children’s development through the quality of caregiving including early stimulation.
This year, the importance of interventions in early childhood was also recognized by the inclusion of an ECD target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – indeed, this is the first time ECD has been explicitly included in global development goals. SDG Target 4.2 aims to increase the percentage of children under five years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being.
The evidence released this past week, combined with the current momentum globally, speaks for itself. We are well versed in the elements that affect the development of children’s brains – good nourishment, stimulated minds, and protection from violence. It is now vital that we use this growing body evidence to effect real changes for children, at both the community and national levels through both programming interventions and policy formulations.
The author is UNICEF representative in Zambia.

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