The World Bank Group convened a Human Capital Summit on the opening day of the Annual Meetings to make the economic case for investing in the early years of children to drive future growth and development.
Nine developing countries heeded the call, pledging to improve nutrition, health and education programs for young children. They became the first wave of countries expected to make similar pledges over the next few years to tackle childhood malnutrition, lack of early stimulation and learning, and other problems affecting the health and development of children.
World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim warned that the future competitiveness of countries in the world economy will depend on whether their young people are able to reach their potential.
Failure to eliminate childhood stunting will have high economic costs – a loss of 7 percent per capita of GDP, on average, and as high as 9 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa and 10 percent in South Asia, according to a recent analysis by the World Bank Group.
Kim illustrated the dangers of undernutrition, under-stimulation, and other threats to the health and welfare of young children in a presentation at the beginning of the event. For example, one in every 45 children in the world today has been uprooted from their home, according to a recent report by UNICEF. One quarter of children under five worldwide are chronically malnourished (are short for their age, or “stunted”) with rates as high as 50 percent or more in some countries.
“To me, 25 percent of all children being stunted, 25 percent of children, through no fault of their own, having inequality and poverty baked into their brains before the age of five, is the issue of our time.”
“Nothing is going to happen without your leadership. Ministers of finance are the ones who can lead the revolution to make sure that no child is left behind.”
Cote d’Ivoire Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan said children should be at the center of health and education policies. The country will mobilize $470 million to scale up investments in nutrition and education for the youngest children.
Gervais Rakotoarimanana, Madagascar’s minister of finance and budget, said malnutrition is prevalent in his country and many children are not in school. He said the situation is “urgent on all fronts” and his first priority as minister of finance is to find a way to invest in the future of the country and its children. Among the plans are to launch as universal health program for women and children, in particular, he said.
Tanzania Minister for Finance and Planning Philip Isdor Mpango said the country’s national nutrition strategy was able to bring down the stunting rate of children under five from 42 percent to 34 percent between 2011 and 2015. The problem isn’t confined to poor children, but also seen among 19 percent of children in the top quintile of the population. “Let us all support President Kim’s pioneering efforts,” said Mpango. “The time to prioritize this investment is now.”
Other countries making pledges included Cameroon, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Senegal.
Moderator Julie Gichuru, a Kenyan media personality and entrepreneur, praised countries’ efforts and spoke out in support of breastfeeding – also praised by Indonesia Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati as important for children.
Indrawati said finance ministers can make a real difference in the quality and inclusiveness of growth. “This is the issue of the next generation to whom we owe our support.”
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said a new report in the Lancet warns that 43 percent of children under five in lower and middle income countries are at risk of never reaching their full cognitive capacity – some 250 million children. “It means that they’ll learn less. It means that they’ll earn less,” said Lake. “If we fail to make all of the progress we can, we will not only be failing these children, we’ll be failing our future.”
Bank President Kim called on countries to quickly tackle the problem. He announced that the World Bank Group will track stunting rates and release the results each year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The Bank will consider stunting a factor in a country’s competitiveness in the world economy, he said.
“What we know is you manage what you measure…We’ve got to hold ourselves to achieving real outcomes.”
He said the Bank would host similar events every Spring and Annual Meetings to hear countries’ pledges and to share innovations in early childhood development. Kim said the Bank would also increase resources for early childhood development through the World Bank Group’s fund for the poorest countries, the International Development Association, also known as IDA.
“We will do everything we can to make sure every country has the resources and technical assistance needed to really tackle this problem.”