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Rwanda's innovative approach to early childhood development through social protection

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Rwanda's innovative approach to early childhood development through social protection Early child development center in Munini Ngororero District, Rwanda Photo: Jean Paul Nyandwi, National Child Development Agency, Rwanda.

I was grateful to join a recent visit with Suleiman Namara, the World Bank Practice Manager for Social Protection and Jobs for East and Southern Africa. He beamed with pride, as did I, watching the children’s joyful laughter and playful antics at the Gikundiro Community-Based Early Childhood Development (ECD) Center in the Nyanza district, located in the southern part of Rwanda. With keen interest, we listened to the lead caregiver explaining about a play-based learning curriculum, the nutritional benefits of the fortified porridge served to the kids, and the homemade toys and learning materials.

In 2018, projections indicated that Rwandan children were likely to attain merely 38% of their productive potential. Compared to their peers in countries with 92% on the Human Capital Index, Rwandan children faced significant challenges right from birth.

Why? Their families lacked access to good nutrition and quality childcare. Determined to change this, the Government of Rwanda embarked on a journey of investing in holistic solutions.

Through its Integrated Early Childhood Development (IECD) Program, supported by the World Bank under the Social Protection Transformation Project, Rwanda is successfully providing high-quality care and early stimulation for children, helping parents access resources necessary for proper family nutrition. Consequently, the country has made significant strides in its commitment to early childhood development reforms and is setting an example worldwide.

Gikundiro, where Suleiman visited in February 2024, is one of 31,000 ECD centers established nationwide serving over 1.2 million children across the country. Community and home-based ECD centers serve three purposes: i) they create childcare employment in ECD centers for experienced mothers from the public works beneficiary households; ii) provide early stimulation and adequate nutrition and iii) provide childcare to children from vulnerable households who would otherwise miss out on such services due to financial constraints and competing demands on time.

This innovative homegrown solution has filled infrastructure gaps needed for early learning and stimulation for 2–5-year-olds. While the children play, learn, and grow, their parents are able to pursue employment, invest, and build their family’s financial stability, comforted by the knowledge that their young ones are in safe hands. Parents are not required to pay schools fees but can opt to contribute food items or cash to the centers.

The ECD centers are also helping ensure good health and physical development by facilitating regular monthly visits by community health workers. The health workers conduct growth monitoring for children and regular health education to caregivers and parents on essential topics including nutrition, hygiene practices, and appropriate health behaviors. Moreover, pregnant, and lactating mothers receive cash, health and nutrition education, immunization, and micronutrient supplements through programs coordinated between the health and social protection sectors.

To ensure effective coordination and oversight of these multisectoral efforts, the Government of Rwanda established the new autonomous National Childhood Development Agency which is responsible for ensuring every child has access to comprehensive, integrated, and quality care that allows for their full survival, growth, and development.

The result of all of this is a comprehensive “convergence” approach that makes sure no child is left behind.

Key outcomes of the IECD Program include:

  • the proportion of children benefiting from integrated ECD services has risen from 17% to 80% in a span of four years. This significant milestone has been achieved through the government’s commitment which more than doubled funding for the services between 2016 and 2023.
  • stunting among children under five, fell from 44% to 33% (2010 – 2019) in ten years and, a significant improvement in Rwanda’s human capital score has been witnessed.
  • Informal centers have filled the infrastructure gaps needed for childcare, early learning, and stimulation.

Rwanda’s holistic strategy for human capital development is emerging as a blueprint for success, one that other countries can emulate and customize according to their unique requirements.

For Suleiman, he fondly remembers how a similar program in Uganda positively benefitted his own family, laying the foundation that got him where he is today. He stands as tangible evidence of the transformative impact that quality early childhood development services can have, and he staunchly advocates for their promise.

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