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ECD — Definition

The acronym ECD refers to a comprehensive approach to policies and programmes for children from birth to eight years of age, their parents and caregivers. Its purpose is to protect the child’s rights to develop his or her full cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential. Community-based services that meet the needs of infants and young children are vital to ECD and they should include attention to health, nutrition, education and water and environmental sanitation in homes and communities. The approach promotes and protects the rights of the young child to survival, growth and development.

UNICEF has chosen to focus this report on the earliest years, 0-3, since they are critical to how the rest of early childhood unfolds and because these important early years are most often neglected in countries’ policies, programmes and budgets.

Other organizations use the following terminology: Early Childhood Care and (Initial) Education (UNESCO); Early Childhood Education and Care (OECD); and Early Childhood Development (World Bank).


Programmes built on the fact that there is an indivisibility and unity to the rights of children hold the greatest promise for children’s health and well-being and for that of their families and communities (see text at left for the definition of ECD). A child grows and develops not in a vacuum but in a community, a culture and a nation. The most effective ECD programmes (see below) are integrated and multidimensional, fostering children’s good health and nutrition and their cognitive, social and emotional abilities. Reflecting cultural values, the best of these programmes are deeply rooted within families and communities, blending what is known about the best environments for optimal child development with an understanding of traditional child-rearing practices.

ECD helps build community networks that can both expand the range of services when needed and respond to emergencies as they arise. In Indonesia, for example, the Bina Keluarga and Balita (BKB) project began in 1982 as a population, health and nutrition programme, monitoring children’s height and weight and providing nutritious meals at local centres. Community women, kaders, were trained in various aspects of child development and organized workshops for parents and other family members at the nutrition centres. When the economic crisis hit the country in 1997, these systems were already in place. The World Bank loaned Indonesia $21.5 million for the Early Child Development Project, which included an emergency food component for infants aged 6-24 months in Indonesia’s poorest communities, the inpres desa tertinggal, or ‘villages left behind’. To protect the infants in these villages from the permanent physical and intellectual stunting associated with malnutrition, plans were made to supply energy, protein and nutrient supplements to more than a quarter-million infants over a two-year period. Never fully implemented, the project was to rely on the pre-existing voluntary village health post and the BKB project.8

Parents and communities throughout the world have created innovative ways of helping their children to grow and develop (see Country Profiles). They have emphasized the importance of good hygiene and sanitation practices, adequate nutrition, proper feeding practices, immunization, growth monitoring, psychosocial stimulation and early detection of disabilities and early intervention. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the home-visiting programmes and pre-schools that focus on stimulation, play, numeracy and literacy preparation have helped young children like Madushika and Madusha shine.

But what works in Sri Lanka will not necessarily work in Indonesia or Namibia. Investing in early childhood care must be guided by the knowledge that communitiesare the best architects of successful programmes that match the needs of caregivers and the developmental milestones of young children and also reflect the culture and values of families.

In Brazil, for instance, volunteers from Pastoral da Criança (Child Pastorate) are trained as community health agents. These volunteers, mostly women, visit mothers in their homes and provide them with information on family planning, prenatal care, breastfeeding and oral rehydration therapy. They monitor babies’ weights and teach families about the importance of interacting with their young children through cuddling, talking and singing. Because of their efforts, communities with Pastoral da Criança volunteers have reduced child mortality by 60 per cent.9

The rights of young children


ECD — Successful programmes

1. Incorporate the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child
, ensuring non-discrimination, the child’s best interests, the right to survival and full development and the participation of children in all matters affecting their lives.

2. Build on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, recognizing that ensuring women’s rights is basic to ensuring child rights.

3. Use the existing strengths of communities, families and social structures, of positive child-rearing practices and the strong desire of parents to provide the best for their children.

4. Have a broad framework, encompassing multidimensional programmes in health, nutrition and the child’s psychosocial and cognitive development.

5. Are developed with and for families, in ways that respect the rights of women and of siblings for schooling and for the enjoyment of their own childhood.

6. Are developed with and for communities, respecting cultural values, building local capacity, creating ownership and accountability, encouraging unity and strength and enhancing the probability that decisions will be implemented and that the programme will be sustained.

7. Provide equal access for all children, including girls and those at risk of delayed development and disabilities.

8. Are flexible and reflect diversity, varying from each other in respect of local and regional needs and resources.

9. Meet the highest quality standards.

10. Are cost-effective and sustainable.

With immunizations and growth monitoring as part of Pastoral, some developmental delays and disabilities are being prevented. When parents are taught about expected milestones in a baby’s life, they become the first lines of defence for at-risk babies. When a disability is detected early, young children, especially those from birth through three years old, are enrolled in community-based early intervention programmes to help them reach their potential. Mothers and fathers learn how to play and interact with their children at home, helping them maintain the progress they make.

Sometimes interventions include not only services for the child with disabilities but also community education and advocacy, as is the case with the Tadamoun Wa Tanmia Association (Solidarity and Development) in Saida (Lebanon), which began in 1986 with summer clubs and camps for children. In 1992, these experts in special education opened a formal school, Hadicat-as-Salam Centre, to help integrate children with physical and mental disabilities into the community. Recognizing the need for early intervention, one of the programmes works with children between three and eight years old. Through games, adaptive sports and community field trips, young children are becoming more independent. Additionally, the programme provides numerous opportunities for children with and without disabilities to play and learn together, helping dispel the myths and stereotypes and remove negative attitudes and biases towards children with special needs.10

As a vehicle for transmitting values, ECD can be a force for equality and tolerance. In a crèche in South Africa, the seeds of racial healing are being sown in an area where apartheid had previously fostered hatred. In a poor neighbourhood in Johannesburg, tucked in the corner of a park once labelled ‘For whites only’, the Impilo Project is providing innovative and comprehensive care for young children of all races. When ECD works with parents and communities to foster problem-solving over conflict and acceptance over intolerance, the groundwork is laid for children to live lives in ways that promote peace within families and societies.

In those instances where ECD is developed with community involvement from the initial planning phase, the corollary benefits include strong and energized communities. In Nigeria, for example, the Community-level Nutrition Information System for Action (COLNISA) used community analyses to build ‘baby-friendly communities’, linking health facilities and hospitals. Currently, 32 communities are working for their children’s healthy development by promoting exclusive breastfeeding, timely and adequate complementary feeding and improved household sanitation.


A local NGO in Cameroon, Association pour l’auto-promotion des populations de l’Est Cameroun (Association for the Self-promotion of Eastern Cameroon’s People) has created non-formal pre-school education centres in the most remote areas of Cameroon’s equatorial forests to reach the Baka pygmy, a traditionally nomad people, in order to prepare their children for school. In more than 60 UNICEF-supported centres, teaching methods have been adapted to pygmy culture and language for children from 0-12 years.

Converging services. There are many entry points in existing sectors for ECD programmes that build on what international agencies, national governments and local communities are already doing. For example, while nutrition programmes might be focused on good prenatal care and teaching the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and its continuation for two years and beyond, they can also educate mothers about the importance of early social, emotional and cognitive stimulation. In Oman, a network of female community workers who were originally entrusted with breastfeeding promotion has been trained to advise mothers on a broadened spectrum of early childcare issues. In some countries, the community health system is the entry point for child development. In other countries, water and sanitation programmes incorporate ways to assure safe spaces for play and exploration.

One of the most important aspects of ECD is that it can build effectively on what already exists. It is not about reinventing the wheel but about giving parents and communities the support they need and maximizing existing resources. With health, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and child protection programmes already available, it is possible to integrate or combine these services to provide for the whole child. Pastoral da Criança is an example of the convergence of early childhood services through the health sector. In Colombia, the Project for the Improvement of Education (PROMESA) chose the education sector to integrate services. In educational programmes, groups of mothers learn how to stimulate the physical and intellectual development of their children from birth to age six.

But before ECD has its chance to succeed, there must be a broadened understanding of the rights of children, and the commitment to spend what must be spent and do what must be done to assure that those rights are realized.

Early intervention reduces the disadvantage of stunting

Panel 2. Families, child rights and participatory research in Nepal

Panel 3. Healthy pregnancies: Protecting the rights of both women and children

Panel 4. Inciatava Papa: Improving the lives of children, one father at a time


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