Early childhood investments vital during economic crisis
By Tee Shiao Eek
KUALA LUMPUR, 24 April 2009 – Far removed from global trading markets, inflation rates and foreign investments, are the young children whose daily lives are irreversibly affected by the shock of the economic crisis.
The food and financial crisis has placed families under economic duress and has greatly affected the coping strategies of households, particularly women. As a result, the developmental and protection rights of children in the early years are often sacrificed in the mistaken belief that it will not have a long-term impact on their lives.
“Babies and toddlers are not the breadwinners of the household, or the leaders of the country. Thus, they have no voice in the decision-making process that determines the social budgeting for policies and services that protect them,” said Mr Youssouf Oomar, UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to Brunei Darussalam.
“Yet young children are the most vulnerable and stand to suffer the greatest long after a nation has recovered from an economic crisis,” added Mr Youssouf.
Compromising the early years
A child’s earliest years of life – from birth to the time the child is settled into formal schooling at around age 8 – are the most critical years for a child to develop to his/her full potential.
During this period, a child needs good nutrition and health, as well as stimulation and quality interaction. However, many children growing up in families that experience financial hardship do not have these vital opportunities.
“Families under economic duress have less nutritious foods for children, and cannot afford health care or preventative health visits, so the children will have less food to eat and have greater risk of illness and death,” said Dr Cliff Meyers, UNICEF Regional Advisor on Education for the East Asia and Pacific region, at the 1st Malaysian International Early Childhood Education and Care Conference in Kuala Lumpur from 15-17 April 2009.
Financial uncertainty may force both parents to go out to work, and they may be unable to afford good quality childcare, pre-school or early learning. These parents may have to leave the young child alone at home, be forced to bring the child to an unsafe workplace, or spend less time at home to play with the child, all of which can compromise a child’s cognitive and psychosocial development.
“Children in families under economic duress have more pressure to help with household chores and family income, experience more stress and anxiety at home, and are often left at home alone without proper care,” Dr Meyers noted.
Economic stress can also exacerbate abuse and neglect, which most commonly occur during infancy and early childhood when children are most vulnerable.
Burden on the economy
Children who miss the precious window of opportunity for health, nutrition, education and protection services during the early development years will have a weak foundation for the rest of their lives.
Their cognitive development will be affected, leading to low IQ and behaviour problems in preschool. These problems continue as they grow up, with poor school achievement and more behaviour problems. They will become adults with low education, no skills and high levels of stress and depression, and are likely to practise little family planning.
When they become parents themselves, they are unlikely to be able to provide appropriate support and care for their own children to become physically healthy, mentally alert and emotionally secure. This leads to generations of families who remain trapped in unemployment and poverty.
This intergenerational transmission of poverty will have a devastating impact on the national economy, which has to increasingly support low-income families, and rehabilitate young people and adults who have few skills to contribute to the economy.
“Providing quality care and education opportunities for children and their families, especially the most at risk, is the most powerful strategy in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty,” said Dr Nurper Ulkuer, Senior Advisor for Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Head of ECD Unit/Programs at UNICEF headquarters.
Learning from past mistakes
The lessons of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis provide strong evidence of significant adverse effects on child health and nutrition, especially among the most vulnerable subgroups of women and children, when social budgets were cut.
“It is estimated that the impending financial crisis will lead to higher levels of maternal anaemia, low birth-weight babies, under-5 mortality rates as well as stunting and wasting, if these concerns are not addressed through social protection policies targeted at families who need it the most,” said Dr Meyers.
Evidence-based interventions that can ameliorate the adverse effects of the economic crisis, with the potential of preventing negative impact on the development of young children, include providing comprehensive early childhood development (ECD) programs, supporting mothers to breastfeed, combining ECD parenting and group learning programs with supplementary feeding for children, providing therapeutic feeding for undernourished children, providing general food rations and cash transfers and vouchers for under-reached communities, as well as supporting agriculture programs.
“In times of an economic crisis, it makes good sense for the Government to invest in early childhood development, as it directly develops human capital and contributes to productivity of the nation,” Mr Youssouf stressed.
He commended the Government of Malaysia for devoting national attention to providing high-quality early childhood education and care, particularly through the PERMATA program, which seeks to provide a conducive environment with suitable facilities, appropriate and stimulating learning tools, as well as trained teachers and caregivers.
It is these lessons that all countries must learn from, because the youngest children are their most precious assets.
NOTE TO EDITORSABOUT Early Childhood Development (ECD)
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reflects a holistic perspective on Early Childhood Development, based on the principles of indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights. Ensuring that all children receive the best start in life provides the foundation for ensuring all of their other rights. The CRC’s General Comment #7 on Implementing Rights in Early Childhood creates a strong opportunity to hold state parties responsible for equity in ECD and social determinants of ECD.
The major challenge in Early Childhood Development is developing and implementing effective policies that reach out all the children and families ensuring that children are physically healthy, and developmentally ready for learning. The important issues are ensuring positive gender socialization, supporting parents and families and developing standards and indicators for effective planning, monitoring and documentation of the progress in Early Childhood Development.
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