The first few years of a child’s life have proven to be an ideal window of opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. Yet across the world, nearly half of all three to six-year-olds do not have access to pre-primary education.
And Sub-Saharan Africa has been hit particularly hard: 80 percent of its children under five years are not enrolled in pre-primary education.
It’s no surprise that the demand for expertise in the area of early childhood development is increasing in Africa. But this demand is not being met.
In March 2017, the World Bank launched the Africa Early Years Fellowship, an initiative of the Early Learning Partnership multi-donor trust fund. The goal of the fellowship, which attracted 3,000 applicants, is to identify and help develop young African professionals who can support governments and World Bank teams in scaling up investments in the early years. Fellows are based in select countries in Africa and will receive rigorous training and work experience in education, health, nutrition and social protection sectors.
We spoke to one of 19 fellows, Ibrahima Giroux, 39, whose Ph.D. in psychology and personal story in Senegal taught him the importance of investing in the early years.
What led you to study education, particularly, early education and development?
I lost my father when I was eight. He knew he was going to die and he really wanted to teach me as much as he could before the day arrived. He knew the importance of early learning; he was a teacher. I became one of the best students in my school. I remember my elementary school teacher saying he taught me nothing because I went to school with very good preparation.
What did your father teach you that has left a lasting impression?
It was math, science—and grammar. He wanted me to be very strong in the structure of French grammar. And I was. When you understand the grammar of a language, then everything else becomes easy.
Did this affect how you are raising your own children?
I am going to tell you my own son’s story. His name is Bachir—which, in Arabic, means “one who is bringing good news.” I gave him this name because when he was born, I was a student and it was a tough period. I was hoping for good news from somewhere.
In the first few days after his mom gave birth, I remember I was hiding under the hospital bed because it was a place for only women. Someone from the hospital told me: “Okay Mr. Giroux, you don’t need to hide. We see you.”
I really wanted to be there. It was important to me not to lose the contact during those early hours and days. I started teaching him counting. I was sure he was getting me, even though he could not answer in a way I could understand. I continued this and when he was seven-years-old, he was able to do grade 10 math.
What does your experience say about the link between early childhood development and health?
There is a book that I published this month. It’s a true story. This baby was two years when we received her here in Dakar. She is from a village in the Southern region of the country where it is common practice to feed stunted babies with diluted phosphorous from matchsticks as a way to “return them.”
After she arrived in Dakar, we sent her to the hospital. She very rapidly started recovering with a re-nutrition program. She was smiling again. Two months later, she was doing very well. It was time to send her back to the village.
But before that, we had to prepare the community for her return. So I traveled back to the community and showed them some videos of her playing with my son. When I showed the movie, the traditional healer just cried. She said: “Are you saying that for decades, we have been poisoning human babies?” They organized a meeting and decided to abandon the practice. It is a great story, which shows that the link between health and cognitive development is obvious because the child was just malnourished.
What role has the World Bank played, so far, in your research and exploration of early childhood development (ECD)?
It is a well-known equation that if you invest in the early years, you will have a good return on investment. This was the amazing formula that inspired me when advocating for early childhood development in Senegal. What I learnt from the World Bank is how to analyze ECD data. This was during an evaluation project with Stanford University in Senegal. Stanford was responsible for evaluating ECD projects that were conducted in 200 villages in Senegal. And they used World Bank software to collect data using electronic tablets.
What are your goals for this year-long Early Years Fellowship?
I am really thankful to the World Bank—not only because they selected me, but also because it is going to help me play a very important role in supporting the Senegalese government in implementing ECD policies with wisdom. Wisdom here is key. We have the science. We know how to interact with babies and we know the outcomes. We now need a very powerful wisdom to get communities to own the project. I hope I can play this role supporting our government to develop high standards.
Follow the World Bank Group Education team on Twitter @wbg_education.