Investing in Children is Smart Economics

Giving every child an equal chance to become a healthy and educated citizen

Maniza Zaman and Keith Hansen
A child is measured for malnutrition in Turkana.
03 August 2022

This article first appeared in the Daily Nation on July 28, 2022.

Almost half of the population in Kenya are children. Their well-being and development depend on the services provided by national and county governments. It is critical that children’s issues are part of the development agenda and a top priority for the incoming leadership.

Through the Changing Childhood Project and other research, UNICEF has identified and is focusing on six priority areas that are key for children’s welfare and shaping Kenya’s next generation. These are: the best start in life; enhancing education; primary and community health; expanding social protection; ending violence against children; and addressing climate change. The next Government of Kenya can build on the gains in child development and further improve children’s lives if it takes up these six priority issues for children, with a special focus on regions that are left behind.

On education, Kenya stands out in Sub-Saharan Africa in its overall performance in school participation and learning outcomes. However, inequities remain between geographical areas and among socioeconomic groups. These arise from disparities in school participation, variations in student learning outcomes, and girls’ education. For example, primary net enrollment rates vary widely, ranging from 42 percent in some areas to 97 percent in others. Secondary net enrollment rates in the wealthiest quintile, meanwhile, are almost double those in the bottom quintile. These inequalities present the largest constraint on human capital formation – the process of increasing the number of skilled and experienced people – in Kenya.

On the early years, around 26 percent of children under five years old are chronically malnourished. Malnutrition and high levels of stunting are strongly associated with lower human capital formation and lower quality of learning. UNICEF and World Bank calculations on the return-on-investment from tackling malnutrition show that this can be as high as 22 to one. Investing in these children means turning them from a potential burden on the health service, to 1.5 million individuals better prepared for education and employment opportunities, able to become a future powerhouse of economic growth.

This return-on-investment principle is true in many of the areas identified as priorities for children. Primary and community health care, for example, can meet up to 90 percent of a child’s health needs with simple, low-cost interventions, preventing children from developing more advanced illnesses that are more expensive to treat. The return on investment here is almost ten to one.

In 2015, UNICEF and the World Bank conducted a study[1] on the benefits of strengthening healthcare through community health workers (CHWs). This considered the impact of 734,000 CHWs in eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa. It found that achieving 90 percent coverage of interventions delivered by CHWs would save over 300,000 child lives per year. With an estimated economic value of over $64,000 per life – in addition to the immense value of the lives themselves to children and families – this results in approximately $19.4 billion in productivity gained per year.

Violence against children is another critical issue in Kenya. Last year, a World Bank study[2] found that violence in schools is widespread around the world. The impact of violence on educational attainment and achievement lead to lifetime earnings losses of the order of US $11 trillion globally. Part of this loss is due to children dropping out of school, but it is also due to the negative impact of violence in school on learning. In Kenya, around half of all 18 to 24-year-olds faced at least one type of violence – physical, sexual, or emotional – during their childhood, leaving them with disabilities, injuries, health issues and emotional scars. Ending violence against children is a smart investment and there are proven interventions that show us how to do it.

UNICEF and the World Bank applauds political leaders for including children's issues in their manifestos and campaigns. This positive first step will next need concrete plans, investments and actions by the next Government, with a view to improving lives and life prospects. One such action would be to enhance coordination of children's services across the whole of government. We stand ready to support the next Government of Kenya to deliver results for children in these and other areas.

Every child matters, has rights, and should actively participate in the development of the country. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate inequalities and without major effort to counter its effects, malnutrition and learning loss will be worsened, resulting in increased dropouts and higher inequality. Our hope is that Kenya becomes a nation where every girl and boy – regardless of their location or economic background – has an equal chance to become a healthy and educated citizen, contributing to the economy.

Investing in children is smart economics.

By Maniza Zaman, UNICEF Representative to Kenya and Keith Hansen, World Bank Kenya Country Director

[1] Strengthening Primary Health Care through Community Health Workers: through Community Health Workers: Investment Case and Financing Recommendations, July 2015

[2] Ending Violence in Schools: An Investment Case, July 2021, World Bank.