By Francisco Cajiao
Some time ago, the Inter-American Development Bank held a forum centering on the early childhood strategy that Colombia’s Office of the President has been coordinating under the leadership of First Lady María Clemencia Rodríguez. De cero a siempre (From Zero to Always), as the program has been so aptly named, is of particular importance to the country’s development, as it points the way toward reducing the social gaps that, unfortunately, exist in our society.
It serves as a guiding principle, based on national and international studies, for the first six years of life, which will set the tone for children’s futures and opportunities. Nutrition, health, patterns of social interaction, essential language learning and the building of self-esteem in these early stages are the tools with which children will face the challenges of being a student and a citizen, of both Colombia and the world.
A country that manages to provide excellent services to its children is a country that aims to get things right from the start.
If there’s one lesson from the efforts of the past few years that must be highlighted, it’s that the meaning of the term “comprehensive care” must be clear, understanding that the coordination of different sectors (social protection, health, education, etc.) is the key to caring for children as individuals rather than mere “units” that correspond to various services. It has been worth spending a few years to precisely establish what must be done and how to do it, as this provides the basis for long-term progress.
And what follows is no less important. A clear path is of little use if we cannot convert all of this effort into a government policy that ensures both the necessary resources and the institutional framework and that mandates, over time, the expansion of programs with ambitious coverage and quality goals. It is urgent to continue the social mobilization work that raises awareness and provides tools for the family and the community at large to ensure the proper development of children during their first years of life. This will require major efforts to ensure the conditions necessary for health care at all levels of complexity, including the pressing need to increase the number of pediatricians and specialized health personnel for this age group.
Similarly, it will be essential to reverse the terrible blow that the Pastrana administration struck to early education for three- and four-year-olds, which had been planned as part of the General Education Law, by excluding it from the General Participation System. This setback led the Ministry of Education to withdraw from its obligation to advance in the search for its own pedagogical models.
It is clear that inequalities in early childhood care have a tremendous impact on the continued cycle of poverty.
The De cero a siempre strategy, with its understanding of the complexity of the task at hand, invites us to dream. If the government as a whole (all branches of power) were to build a new country, with a focus on getting it right from the start, it would have to devote all the necessary financial resources and the best human resources to produce an entire generation raised with the principles of equity. There would be a generation of children who would receive the care needed to grow up healthy, have access to the same opportunities for early childhood education, and benefit from the best cultural stimuli, no matter where they were born.
A utopia of this kind would enable new ways of thinking about the nation’s priorities, injecting into our collective dreams the most powerful antidote to violence available.
This article was previously published in El Tiempo (article in Spanish).