On 23 September, UNICEF hosted a historic event that brought together the President of Chile, leaders of four United Nations organizations, eight country ministers, representatives from at least 28 countries, company executives, prominent academics, media, and the first ladies of Colombia and Honduras.
The Breakfast of Champions for Early Childhood Development saw eight prominent speakers express their commitment to serving as ‘champions’ for early childhood development. They expressed their support for programmes and policies that could be implemented early in life across sectors including health, nutrition, education and protection.
The high-profile gathering represents a shift in the goalposts for early childhood development, marking the extent to which the issue has taken a central role in efforts to improve the lives of children.
Dr Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile, devoted her speech to the country’s early childhood development policy, Chile Grows with You. She also expressed support for early childhood inclusion in the post-2015 development agenda. But once included, countries can expect challenges as they create policies and programmes to meet development goals, she said.
“The adoption and implementation of these policies by developing countries will also require support from multilateral bodies and assistance and technical cooperation from developed countries,” she said.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, who has been leading the call for the science to inform UNICEF programming, said that intervening early in children’s lives was an “absolute obligation” that must be undertaken for “children and for our collective futures.”
In his remarks, he made this pledge: “UNICEF is committed to redefining early childhood development so that, together with our partners, we can promote the holistic well-being of all young children around the world.”
Dr Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, reminded the audience that “a deep and rigorous science” supports the politics required to place early childhood development in the post-2015 agenda.
The science, which is developing rapidly, shows that the environment has physical effects on the body that lead to lasting health consequences, he said.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, an expert on economic development and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, focused on financing. He called on the audience to mobilize the resources necessary to achieve early childhood development goals.
Helena Thybell, Global Manager of the H&M Conscious Foundation shared her organization’s ambitions and support, through UNICEF, of early childhood development initiatives.
“Our ambition is to help drive early childhood development to ensure it is on the global agenda so that in the future, more children will achieve their full development potential,” she said.
Examples of countries implementing early childhood interventions included a description from María Clemencia Rodríguez de Santos, first lady of Colombia. She spoke about the work underway to provide comprehensive care for children from gestation to age 5.
The breakfast concluded with remarks by Dr Agnès Binagwaho, Rwanda’s Minister of Health.
Dr Binagwaho said that early childhood development interventions were not simply about money, but about changing attitudes. Given the advances in sciences and the opportunities currently available, supporting children in their early years is imperative, she said.
Early childhood development has gained prominence in discussions about the post-2015 development agenda. Indeed, for the first time in the history of global development, early childhood is mentioned as part of the guiding framework.
Though this is a remarkable achievement, advocates must continue to promote the issue. The speakers at the event certainly showed no signs of complacency. Instead, they pledged commitment from the perspective of their different fields of expertise.
Dr Binagwaho said: “We can do it. Not doing it would be a crime today.”
Pia Britto is Senior Advisor on Early Childhood Development at UNICEF. The ‘Champions’ event was preceded by the launch of a Lancet commentary piece by Mr. Lake and WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan. Dr Britto highlighted the importance of this piece in her latest UNICEF Connect blog post.