Early childhood development in emergencies
Ensuring the youngest children and their caregivers are visible in humanitarian contexts.
Even in the best of times, babies and young children are among the world’s most vulnerable people. When societies are shaken by violence, disasters or disease outbreaks, their youngest members experience this as an existential threat.
More than half of under-five deaths are estimated to occur in settings affected by armed conflict, displacement or natural disasters. Meanwhile, children exposed to extreme stress and deprivation during the critical years between birth and age 8 are more likely to struggle with cognitive, behavioural and emotional difficulties and experience delays in their development.
More than half of under-five deaths are estimated to occur in settings affected by armed conflict, displacement or natural disasters.
For parents and caregivers – young children’s first line of defense against adversity – emergencies bring stress, danger and uncertainty that make it harder to provide the responsive care, nutritious food and safe environments their children need. Crises strain and disrupt the social services families rely on, and as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated everywhere, those living in poverty or belonging to marginalized groups are hardest hit.
For babies and young children in humanitarian and fragile settings, access to early childhood development (ECD) services is a matter of life and death. Supporting them and their caregivers is essential to ending preventable newborn and under-five deaths and fostering healthy brain development. It is also a key part of helping communities and countries recover from crises, breaking cycles of poverty and violence, and building peaceful, resilient societies.
ECD in emergencies is not getting the attention or the resources it needs. Only a small percentage of humanitarian response plans incorporate ECD interventions. Funding is scarce, and often limited to short-term surge funding that does not allow programming to be sustained for lasting impact.
UNICEF works with governments, donors and other partners to ensure that the youngest children and their caregivers are visible in humanitarian contexts, and that the critical importance of early childhood development (ECD) services is recognized – both in the acute emergencies that make news headlines, and in the protracted crises the world often forgets.
We advocate for increased, long-term funding to support ECD programming in emergencies and for the integration of ECD across all phases of humanitarian action. Our goal? Countries build in support for young children and their caregivers as they prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies.
There are many pieces to ensuring the youngest children’s survival and healthy development in humanitarian and fragile settings – making sure they get the right food and health care, have a chance to play and learn, and experience the love and safety that create a buffer against the impacts of adversity.
Putting all these pieces in place means making ECD an integral part of humanitarian interventions in every sector: in nutrition and health; water, sanitation and hygiene; education, child protection and social policy. It means strengthening awareness and knowledge of ECD among frontline workers during emergencies – building up a workforce of people who know what young children and their caregivers need, and are equipped to offer that support through proven interventions.
UNICEF has developed, tested and rolled out packages of interventions to provide critical ECD services in humanitarian and fragile settings. These approaches include creating safe spaces for babies and young children to play and learn, training caregivers and frontline workers to provide nurturing environments, and counselling caregivers to bolster their own well-being.
Through these core ECD packages, we are working to make sure that – even in the worst of times – babies and young children get what they need to survive the upheavals around them and develop to their full potential, so that they and their communities can build back and thrive.