New early childhood care plan provides much-needed incentive for Africa

Without intervention, adults affected by adversity in early childhood are estimated to earn almost a third less than the average adult income in their country. This is just one of the consequences of substandard child development that the newly launched Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood will be seeking to address.

Nurturing care encompasses young children’s needs for good health, optimal nutrition, security,  safety, and opportunities and in its absence, a country stands to grapple with poverty, malnutrition, insecurity, gender inequities, violence, environmental toxins and caregivers’ poor mental health.

Lack of investment in early childhood development, and addressing the long-term consequences, are estimated to cost countries more than what they spend today on health as well.

The new framework, which was launched during the 71st World Health Assembly, is the brainchild of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the World Bank, in collaboration with the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, the Early Childhood Development Action Network.

The organisations came together after realising that a united approach would yield better results as opposed to a siloed approach to attaining the same goals.

“The period from pregnancy to age 3 is key for a child’s development. That’s when the brain grows fastest,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “And that’s why young children need a safe, secure and loving environment, with the right nutrition and stimulation from their parents or caregivers.”

The new framework provides an evidence-based roadmap for action and outlines how policies and services can support parents, families, other caregivers and communities in providing nurturing care for young children. It calls for effective national programmes that are driven by strong and sustained political commitment and a determination to reduce inequity, poverty and social injustice, drawing on best practices from across high-, middle- and low-income countries.

Parents, families and other primary caregivers are the main providers of nurturing care. Policies, programmes, and services must, therefore, be designed to enable them and their communities to meet all the needs

“A child’s early environment and experiences have a direct and long-term impact on the way the brain is structured – influencing their present and future cognitive, emotional and social development, and their overall health and well-being,” said UNICEF Deputy Programme Director, Vidhya Ganesh.

“And when we invest in the earliest years of children’s lives – through health, social and education programmes that help parents provide their young with nurturing care – we all benefit,” he added

Sustainable Development Goals

The framework comes at a time when countries are boosting their efforts to meet their Sustainable Development Goals, which includes several targets related to early childhood development.

“We know that developing an individual’s full potential and a country’s human capital is highly dependent on giving children the best possible start through quality early childhood development, including early nutrition and stimulation,” said Annette Dixon, Vice President for Human Development at the World Bank Group.

“Investing in quality ECD interventions also makes economic sense: every $1 invested in it can yield between $6 and $17 in returns.”

The launch of the Framework is part of a growing movement and alignment of many partners from across different sectors. Dr. Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile and Board Chair of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health paid tribute to this collaboration.

“Over 1000 individuals from 111 countries have contributed to crafting the framework that recognizes that nurturing care not only promotes physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, it also protects young children from the worst effects of adversity. It produces lifelong and intergenerational benefits for health, productivity, and social cohesion,” she said

Prior to the launching of the new framework, some countries had already started integrating nurturing care into their health services.

In Kenya, the services are found in Siaya County whose government started integrating nurturing care into the county’s health system in 2014 in order to improve development outcomes for children.

In health facilities, priority services included clinical monitoring of developmental milestones, referral of children with suspected developmental delays, counselling on responsive caregiving and early learning and structured play sessions. The government also sought to use community health volunteer networks to provide nurturing care-related counselling and to offer additional support through home visits

“In Siaya County, we have prioritised early childhood development (ECD) as a high-impact intervention that will enable children in Siaya to achieve optimal development. The approach we are using to scale up ECD is multi-sectoral and led by government,” said Dr. Samuel Omondi Owino, County Director of Health, Siaya County

To close gaps in the legal framework left by devolution, Ministry of Health champions sought to elevate nurturing care on the country’s political agenda and renewed commitments to enacting supportive policies and guidelines. For example, the Government and development partners convened to revive the county health bill, which had stalled, after being drafted in 2015, because of elections and turnover of government officials.

To support these efforts, newly elected County Assembly members of the Health and Public Governance Committees were made aware of the importance of nurturing care and the crucial role of the health sector in delivering ECD services.

“As Governor, I see Siaya leading the way and providing an example to other counties. I want to use my platform nationally on the Council of Governors to ensure that all children in Kenya develop to their full potential,” H.E. Cornel Rasanga Amoth, Governor of Siaya.

 

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