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The Giant of Africa takes bold strides to invest in early years

Amaka Momah-Haruna's picture



A year ago, if you had asked me how best a child could reach its potential, I would have looked through my myopic, public health, physician’s lens, and responded that making sure children (0-5years) are healthy and well-nourished is all it takes.

However, six months into the World Bank’s “Africa Early Years” fellowship and I realize I would have been abysmally wrong.

The 2016 Lancet Series on Early Child Development “From Science to Scale,” states that “the healthy development of a young child is dependent on nurturing care—care which ensures health, nutrition, responsive-care giving, safety and security, and early learning—with no domain being more important than the other”. In essence, these Early Childhood Development domains are interdependent and synergistic in terms of their impact on young children’s development. For example, undernutrition has an impact on children’s physical development and makes them more vulnerable to disease, but it also has an impact on their intellectual and cognitive development, and in turn their educational progress.

There is also good evidence of long-term consequences on psycho-social wellbeing.

I have come to realize that being convinced of the evidence is the easy part of the puzzle. In a country where every sector is struggling to improve its own child development-related indices, the more difficult part of the puzzle is convincing government counterparts across different sectors to run with the vision of improving the outcome of the “whole child”, compared to fragmenting the child across sectors.

Nigeria’s development indices for children in their early years are quite poor. According to research published by the World Bank, the “early years (0-5 years)” are the peak period for brain development, and developmental delays caused by poor nourishment, reduced early stimulation and learning, as well as toxic stress, are difficult to compensate for later in life.
 
Unfortunately, the status quo indicates that this may well be the case for a significant number of children in Nigeria. Every single day, Nigeria loses about 2,300 under-5 year olds, making it the second largest contributor to deaths under five in the world. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of a significant number of these deaths: 43% of children in Nigeria under five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition.
 
Also, only 35.6% of children age 3—5 year-olds are attending an organized early childhood education programs. Given that exposure to these programs gives a head start to the child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development, this is a serious shortcoming. The insurgency in the northeast of the Nigeria (by Boko Haram) and its attendant consequences on children is also a significant factor in child welfare: Currently, 1.4 million IDP children urgently require child protection services in the northeast.
 
In this regard, the first ever “National Early Childhood Development” Conference was conceived. With support from the World Bank and UNICEF, the Government of Nigeria convened critical stakeholders, providing a venue for stakeholders in child welfare from different ministries to sit beside each other and ask the simple questions that make the difference, such as: “How can I use your structures reach young children that need my services?”
 
These were the 3 main take ways from the conference:

  • Full Scale Integration of ECD services may not be possible in our context: instead we need to identify modest sectoral entry points and effective delivery platforms for integration
  • Political leadership should be from the highest level: but Implementation should be bottom-up and community driven
  • Funds are an important facilitator of the process: but is not the critical determinant, as countries like Senegal have achieved great success using integrated, low-cost service delivery systems

The conference exposed key stakeholders to global evidence, as well as findings from relatable contexts. For example, the Director of Child Health was overwhelmed by evidence surrounding early stimulation and learning, and began to ruminate on ideas of how they could be incorporated into public Primary Health Care Facilities, while the Director of Universal Basic Education Commission shared ideas about harnessing the 2,000, School-Based Management Committees to give parents information on nutrition, stimulation, and parenting skills.
 
We are very aware that we have a long way to go but we are very enthusiastic about the possibilities, because in a country of over 180 million people, every bit counts!!
 
So we are determined to ADOPT, ADAPT and INNOVATE!!!