The Progress of Nations

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 The time to sow
 Commentary: Early childhood care

Investing in children

A child whose mother has access to the care and services she needs during pregnancy and childbirth, a child born into a community with a competently staffed and adequately stocked primary health care centre, where information about nutrition and help for common ailments and infections are available, is a child off to a good start.

When there is time for the stimulation and early learning that lead to better formal school achievement later, where there is access to clean water and adequate sanitation systems and ‘child-friendly’ primary schools – these too are vital factors in a good start in life.

An additional global expenditure of approximately $70 billion to $80 billion each year would help extend basic services that provide this kind of vital foundation to all. This is by no means an exorbitant amount, particularly in light of the benefits that would accrue, but it is one that developing countries on their own could not muster. However, if developing countries devoted about 20 per cent of national budgets and donor nations a similar proportion of official development assistance (ODA) to basic social services, then the resources, for the most part, would be available. Such allocations are the basis of the 20/20 Initiative, advocated by UNICEF and other partners and endorsed by many nations at the World Summit for Social Development in 1995.

There are many reasons why countries do not honour the most basic rights of children. In some, war has destroyed infrastructure, economies and communities; AIDS is rampant, particularly in Africa, and it is very dangerously eroding already fragile social structures and the abilities of communities and nations to respond. Corruption drains the coffers in many others. And in far too many, the spiral of increasing and self-perpetuating debt strains already threadbare budgets and translates into disaster for children.

It is an enormous blot on the conscience of the world that in the 41 heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs) – where human development indicators are the worst in the world – debt service consumes three to five times the amount of resources spent on basic services. In almost half of those same countries, nearly 50 per cent of people lack access to adequate sanitation and clean drinking water; 26 of the 31 countries with the highest numbers of child deaths in the world are in the HIPC group.

Not only is debt relief still stymied, but development assistance has also fallen from an average of 0.33 per cent of gross national product (GNP) in 1990 to an average of 0.24 per cent in 1998. This is happening in the context of a global economy that has grown to more than $30 trillion today and in donor countries where average GNP per person increased from $20,900 to $27,000 over the course of the last decade.

There is no question that the resources exist, but too little money is allotted for children’s survival, growth and development, and too few people understand the implications for all societies of missed opportunities in early childhood.

When care in early childhood is made a priority, much can be achieved. The accomplishments of the past 10 years are significant. Immunization alone saves the lives of 2.5 million children each year. The conditions for unleashing these children’s full human potential, however, remain largely unchanged in poor communities.


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