Early childhood interventions key to achieving global equity, experts say

'Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood'

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© UNICEF/2010/Markisz
UNICEF Director of Programmes Nicholas Alipui addresses participants of the panel discussion ‘Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood.’

By Melissa Gorelick

NEW YORK, USA, 14 October 2010 – Experts consider that early childhood is the most vital period for the child’s survival, growth and development. It includes crucial processes shaping the brain and influencing a range of health and social outcomes through life.  

To highlight the importance of early childhood development, an interactive panel discussion on ‘Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood’ was held at UNICEF House in New York last night. Panellists highlighted the different dimensions of early childhood through the lens of their areas of expertise – including intergovernmental programming, economic investment and protection against violence.

The event was hosted by the Permanent Missions to the United Nations of Barbados, Belgium, Uruguay and the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations, in collaboration with América Latina en Acción Solidaria (ALAS) , Plan International, Save the Children, World Vision, and UNICEF. It was moderated by UNICEF Chief of Gender and Rights Unit Daniel Seymour.

Childhood’s ‘golden’ opportunity

The panel’s focus on early childhood echoed the 2010 Report of the Secretary-General on Status of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which focused on the implementation of child rights in early childhood.

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© UNICEF/2010/Markisz
Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the UN José Luis Cancela (right) addresses panellists, including (from left) Committee on the Rights of the Child Chairperson Yanghee Lee, Special Representative for the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais, UNICEF Director of Programmes Nicholas Alipui, Bernard van Leer Foundation CEO Lisa Jordan and América Latina en Acción Solidaria Deputy Director Alicia Marin.

“Investing in early childhood means giving children opportunities for life, quality in their lives and breaking the cycle of poverty” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Johnson during her opening address. “What we do in early childhood determines our life as adults”, she said.

Yanghee Lee, Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, noted that by the age of five, 80 per cent of the human brain is fully developed. Stress and deprivation during those essential early years severely hampers a child’s long-term development, she said.

“Early childhood is not only a critical window of opportunity, it is a golden one,” said UNICEF Director of Programmes Dr. Nicholas Alipui. However, he added, understanding this is not enough. The mission of child rights advocates worldwide must be to gather strong, disaggregated data on the importance of early childhood development and to make the data visible to governments and other decision-makers.

A profitable investment

“Learning begins at birth,” said panellist Lisa Jordan, Executive Director of Bernard van Leer Foundation. But only 53 per cent of countries have comprehensive national early childhood development programmes in place, she said, and this must change.

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© UNICEF/2010/Susan Markisz
América Latina en Acción Solidaria Deputy Director Alicia Marin addresses participants in the panel discussion.

“The key element here is integrated approaches,” said Dr. Alipui. While many governments do provide basic services such as health, nutrition and early education, he explained, they are frequently provided as individual services – and rarely, if ever, as holistic packages.

Moreover, early childhood presents a unique chance for countries to reduce spending on services later in a child’s life, said Deputy Director of the nonprofit organization ALAS Alicia Marin. “Early childhood development is one of the best public investments for developing countries because it promotes equality from birth,” she said. In Latin America, where some of the world’s greatest economic inequalities exist, both governments and the private sector have begun investing in early childhood programmes – which have a very high social return.

Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence against Children, agreed. For every dollar invested in early childhood, she said, there is up to an $8 return. “Investment in early childhood is not an expenditure, it’s an opportunity to save money in any nation,” she asserted. She added that research shows that young children suffer very high levels of violence, both as they witness domestic violence and as they endure violence themselves, and that young children victims of violence are at particular risk of permanent disability or death.

Early childhood and equity

Earlier yesterday, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly began its consideration of the agenda item on promotion and protection of the rights of children and heard a presentation on the Secretary-General’s annual report on the rights of the child, which focused on early childhood and the need for a holistic, rights-based and equity-centred approach.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake addressed the Committee, noting that the earliest moments of childhood are the most critical for achieving sustainable, equitable development. “So much depends on those moments and months,” he said. “It is up to all of us ... to make the most of them.”

As the world strives to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals 1, a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide, early childhood is a growing focus area for achieving the goals with equity.

“Early childhood is a place where you see the highest level of disparity manifest itself,” said Dr. Alipui. “You can judge how well a country is doing by how well it is taking care of its youngest and most vulnerable children.”