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Achieving equity through early childhood development

© UNICEF/2011/South Africa/Eisenstein
Thandeka Sqoko walks her 2 children to a local early childhood development centre, in Mdantsane, South Africa.

By James Elder

MDANTSANE, South Africa, 23 September 2011 - Just 19-years-old and already a mother of two, Thandeka Sqoko lives in the two-room home of her boyfriend, with his parents and four siblings. Her own mother kicked her out when she became pregnant. Thandeka’s day ends at 11pm, 18 hours after it began. Well before sunrise she gets her two babies ready, prepares breakfast and cleans the house. On her way to school, she drops off her one-month old, Ithandile, and two-year old, Lethokuhle, at a day care centre.

Throughout the day Ithandile and Lethokuhle are stimulated, fed, taught and cared for. In addition, the centre offers young mothers such as Thandeka vital information on nutrition and health care for their babies. “Without this place my life would be over,” said Thandeka.

Investing in equity

From Thandeka in East London, South Africa, to the world’s eminent medical journal (The Lancet) in London UK, the same tune is being sung: Early childhood is the most effective and cost-efficient time to intervene to address inequalities and to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

In 2007, The Lancet reported that more than 200 million children under 5 years were failing to meet their full developmental potential because of preventable risks including poverty, malnutrition and inadequate levels of intellectual stimulation.

This new report – released on 23 September – by the Child Development Group, with UNICEF support, analyses new evidence on the causes of inequality in child development, assesses the effectiveness of current early child development (ECD) interventions, and calculates the cost of failing to invest in the developmental potential of disadvantaged children. It goes into hundreds of billions of dollars. The human face of this cost analysis is even more devastating.

VIDEO: In the last decade compelling evidence has emerged on the importance and impact of the a child's early years on his or her entire future.


Poor children are particularly threatened because risks tend to occur together, and these risks have a cumulative effect. “Inequalities in low-income and middle-income countries are established in early childhood and contribute to lifetime differences,” concluded the researchers. Any one of a dozen risks could harm a child, but in combination, cumulatively over time, and starting in very early childhood – or even before birth – they are almost guaranteed to wreck a child’s chances in life.

Starting early

However, the new report is also full of high impact, cost-effective answers. According to the report, the most successful and cost-efficient time to prevent inequalities is prenatally and in the first years of life.

“Early education center programs, and different types of parenting programs such as group sessions or home visits have proven to be very effective,” stressed UNICEF’s chief of Early Childhood Development, Dr Nurper Ulkuer.  “And the best parenting programs should be linked with a health system, nutrition program, or community development effort.”

Studies consistently showed associations between breastfeeding and better school grades and higher IQ scores, whilst conditional cash transfer schemes and educational media are also important tools in the battle for child development.

VIDEO: What a child experiences in the first five years essentially shapes his entire childhhod, youth and adult life. Here's a brief preview into some of the hard facts around why we must act now to safeguard the future of children.


“What we have is a fantastic opportunity,” explained the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, Dr. Richard Horton. “We have the science and the evidence to show that we can make a difference. We have to work across sectors so that we integrate services in terms of early learning, in terms of health, in terms of nutrition, in terms of poverty reduction.”

Time to act

Despite the current global state of financial uncertainty, the report is clear - governments and donors simply can’t afford not to invest in ECD and in parents across the developing world. The report finds that the economic benefit of ECD could give a 17-fold return on investment if a country increased early childhood enrolment to 50%.

Thandeka may not have such data in front of her; instead she has the experience of seeing her children grow and learn. The messages are the same. The time to act is now.



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