We are living through a watershed year for global development with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, an agenda for 2030 that is the universal development charter for the 21st century. These new SDG Goals recognize that children are agents of change when they channel their infinite potential to create a better world. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “The Sustainable Development Goals recognize that early childhood development can help drive the transformation we hope to achieve over the next 15 years.”
The question is: how can Early Childhood Development (ECD) drive the transformation we want to achieve by 2030?
The purpose of the agenda is clear: to eradicate poverty and hunger, restore human dignity and equality, protect the planet, manage natural resources, promote economic prosperity, and foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies. The 17 goals and 169 targets are ambitious, integrated and interlinked. They cover the core dimensions of sustainable development – people, planet, prosperity and peace.
ECD is included in Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” It is specifically mentioned in target 4.2: “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
However, if we reduce ECD to one area of development, will limit the power of ECD to transform individuals and societies. In the words of UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake: “We now know that it takes more than education for a child’s brain to develop – a lot more.”
Instead, “learning should ignite a revolution in how we think about and act on early childhood development,” Anthony Lake has written in his latest blog.
We have learned that a developing brain needs multiple inputs – health, nurturing care, protection, and enrichment. By incorporating these multiple inputs into our early childhood development efforts, we can foster the developmental potential of young children. At the same time, we also maximize the multiplier effect ECD has on many of the Global Goals. For example:
Goal 1: Eradicate poverty
ECD has been documented to be one of the most cost-effective strategies for poverty alleviation. Early in life, when the brain has the maximum capacity to develop in the fullness of its complexity, children learn the skills that will help them flourish in a 21st-century economy.
Goal 2: End hunger and improve nutrition
Children who receive early stimulation with nutrition supplements have better outcomes than children who only receive nutrition supplements, thereby amplifying the impact of nutrition. Furthermore, ECD interventions buffer the negative effect of stress thereby improving absorption of nutritional intake.
Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives
ECD interventions early in life set a trajectory for good lifelong health. It can lead to lower incidence of cardiovascular and non-communicable diseases and can increase well-being. With ECD, not only do children survive, they thrive.
Goal 4: Ensure lifelong learning
Learning begins at birth. ECD interventions have proved to be the foundation for later learning, academic success and productivity. A study on increasing pre-school enrolment in 73 countries found higher future wages of US$6 to US$17 per dollar invested, which indicates potential long-term benefits ranging from US$11 to US$34 billion.
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality
The nexus between early childhood development and women’s economic empowerment is clear. Greater investment in high-quality and affordable childcare is linked to greater opportunities for women’s economic advancement and empowerment.
Goal 8: Promote decent work for all
Adequate childcare is a critical element of the decent work agenda. Investments in professionalization of the early childhood workforce contribute to full and productive employment, especially for women.
Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries
Inequality often begins before birth. ECD is a powerful equalizer. The first few years of a child’s life offers a window of opportunity to provide interventions that can close the inequality gap between children born into disadvantage and those born with many advantages. Disadvantaged children who receive ECD services earn up to 25 per cent more as adults compared with children who did not receive the services and almost catch up in earnings to their non-disadvantaged peers.
Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
ECD requires safe spaces that have sustainable, natural, and biophilic features, thereby providing the entry point for cities and human settlements.
Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption
ECD programmes set in place patterns of consumption, attitudes towards conservation and behavioural practices that will preserve the environment. What children learn early lasts a lifetime.
Goal 16: Promote peaceful societies
Early childhood interventions have the potential to promote healthy neurobiology, foster resilience in children and instil values and behaviours that can reduce violence and promote peace. ECD interventions have been shown to lead to lower rates of violence in the home and greater social cohesion in communities.
Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation
Measurement of early childhood development at global, regional and national levels can serve as a powerful tool to revitalize global partnerships. UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) provide population-level data that is suitable to measure target 4.2 of the SDGs.
Click here to download a slideshow on the multiplier effect ECD has on the Global Goals.
Investments in ECD are fiscally smart, given the multiplier effect of ECD across several goals. But, they are also scientifically credible and morally correct. Let us affirm our commitment to the Global Goals by giving every child a fair chance in life from the start.
Pia Britto is Senior Advisor on Early Childhood Development at UNICEF.