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Choosing to invest in the future
In a working class suburb of Paris, a small, colourful patchwork of humanity is woven together each morning. Children and their parents - one adult arrives dressed in the flowing boubou of Senegal, another sports a fez from Morocco and several others wear a classic French beret - stream into the community crèche in Goutte d'Or. In this immigrant neighbourhood with its mixture of Africans, Asians and Europeans, the crèche is a unifying thread. Yacine and Sana, twin two-year-olds, quickly settle into playing. Yacine gravitates to the brightly coloured cubes that he has learned to stack, while Sana, his sister, draws on large sheets of paper.
"The crèche is the best thing for children," says Fatima, their dark-haired young mother, who emigrated from Morocco 15 years ago. "Here, I know they are safe and they are learning French from a very young age, whereas at home we speak mostly Arabic. It will be easier for them at school later on."
France's crèche system is an equalizer in a diverse community. Yacine and Sana attend school with 53 other young children who range in age from three months to three years. The children come from different cultures and economic backgrounds, but here they learn the skills that will enable them to live and work together for a lifetime.
"Of course, it's a bit expensive - around 40 francs per child per day - but it's worth the sacrifice," Fatima declares. Public funds actually cover most of the cost of running the crèche, which in 1998 was 355 francs daily per child living in Paris. The unemployed mother of a child named Amine pays only 8 francs per day. The young Algerian woman explains proudly, "It has made it possible for me to get training to do housekeeping work. Now I can look for a job."
This Paris crèche does far more than provide day care. It combines health, nutrition and social services with visits to doctors and sessions with teachers and psychologists. "Apart from its educational functions, the crèche plays a very important role in detecting and preventing children's problems, which is especially crucial for families in difficult situations," emphasizes the coordinator of the neighbourhood crèches. "Our work with the parents is every bit as important as the work we do with the children to help them become more integrated."
Early childhood care saves lives. Wherever it is found, whether in war-ravaged countries or industrialized societies, programmes that focus on the health, education and social well-being of the youngest citizens have made a profound difference in children's survival, growth and development.
What is a fair price to pay for saving children? India's Integrated Child Development Services was estimated in 1994 to cost 27 cents a day for each child. During the same year, the Hogares Comunitarios de Bienestar programme in Colombia, operating in 55,000 sites and offering full day care including food, was estimated to cost 38 cents a day. Many countries spend considerably more, with governments absorbing much of the cost.
Far-sighted leaders understand that money spent now on early childhood care will pay off in the form of healthier, more productive children and in stable familes that are able to sustain themselves and contribute to society. Indeed, choosing not to provide early care for all children is the costliest mistake. For every $1 invested in the physical and cognitive development of babies and toddlers, there is an estimated $7 return, mainly from cost savings in the future.
A study of poor Brazilian children makes a compelling case for early childhood care in underprivileged communities. Poor girls who had attended pre-school were twice as likely to reach grade 5 and three times as likely to reach grade 8 as girls who did not. And 40 per cent of poor Brazilian boys who attended pre-school finished primary school, compared to 2 per cent of boys who had not been involved in early educational programmes.
As unassailably good and right as early childhood care is, two things stand in the way of saving children: political will and money. Donor countries do not allocate high enough proportions of assistance to basic social services. Nor do developing nations allocate adequate amounts to these crucial services. Few donors direct more than 10 per cent of aid to such services, and in more than 30 countries, the average investment is between 12 per cent and 14 per cent of the budget - far short of what's needed. A better alternative is to subscribe to the 20/20 Initiative, which calls for donor countries to earmark 20 per cent of aid and recipient governments to allocate 20 per cent of their budgets to fund basic social services. The additional investment of $80 billion per year that would become available through this effort would be enough to extend vital basic social services to all communities, which would help ensure every baby a good start in life.
Another element in releasing resources for human development is to provide relief for developing countries from their crushing debt burden. Money that could go to education, health care and infrastructure improvement is instead now spent to repay the $2 trillion owed by developing nations to the World Bank, IMF, other lenders and industrialized countries. Many countries now spend more money on debt servicing than on basic social services. Changing debt relief to investment in children is key to ending poverty. Uganda offers a case in point: Using the debt dividend that it received as part of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative of the World Bank and IMF, it has expanded primary education and care for AIDS orphans.
Early childhood care cannot succeed in a vacuum. Gender discrimination and the relative powerlessness of women in society play a major role in how children are cared for within their homes. Research in Kenya and Malawi found a strong correlation between women's control of their income and a household's caloric intake. Empowering women is the most direct way to improve children's lives.
Making early childhood care work demands political courage. Early childhood programmes succeed when leaders are willing to fight for the rights of children and women. There may not be an immediate political payback for defending the most vulnerable members of society. But there are long-term rewards when leaders have the vision to give priority to the rights of the youngest children. No other investment resonates for as long and in as many ways.
By championing the rights of the youngest children, we are taking the first step to breaking the bonds of poverty, violence, disease and discrimination and to building a world of hope and change. As Priyanthi has discovered by seeing her own small treasure thrive, the true wealth of a nation is measured in the health and strength of its youngest citizens.