By Jane Leer
We are now one year closer to 2015—the deadline the 193 United Nations member states and 23+ international organizations established to achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). What have we achieved so far for our youngest and most vulnerable members of society? And, as the international community prepares the post-2015 MDG framework, will early childhood development be included?
The fourth MDG “Reduce the under-five child mortality rate by two thirds” is the only MDG that specifically targets the early childhood period. Globally, child mortality has declined by 35% since 1990, but children in the developing region as a whole remain twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday compared to children from the wealthiest 20% of households. Fighting child mortality is an essential first step, and increased investment is needed to ensure healthy pregnancies and childbirths and to fight preventable causes of child mortality, such as malnutrition and diarrhea.
Thus far, however, comprehensive early childhood care and education have largely been neglected, as international efforts have focused on universal primary school enrollment (MDG #2) and eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education (MDG#3). Both are necessary goals. However, they will only be achieved if investments in the first five years of life enable vulnerable children to overcome the obstacles they are born into, such as hunger, stress, and lack of quality interactions with parents, caregivers, and teachers. To date, less than 50% of the world’s children receive pre-primary education and care.
However, a review of the initial post-2015 MDG preparation, in particular the education proposals, is promising. Thus far, the overwhelming consensus among the international community is towards a commitment to learning and skill formation, given that significant gains in access to schools have not been matched by improved educational quality or equity within the classroom. Incorporated in the commitment to learning, however, is the recognition that a weak foundation in the early years is one of the most significant barriers to lifetime learning and to school achievement.
The United Nations Secretary General’s Office, the agency spearheading the post-2015 education debate, proposes reducing the number of children younger than 5 who suffer from malnutrition by 50% and increasing participation in quality early childhood development programs for marginalized children. UNESCO has defined pre-primary education as a primary thematic area. The World Bank Group’s Education Strategy 2020 outlines early childhood development—prenatal health, quality parental interactions and initial education—as a central pillar of their Learning for All Strategy. The Global Compact for Learning, led by the Brookings Institution, calls for quality early childhood development programs as a primary strategy to combat inequality.
Here at the IDB, early childhood development is a sector priority in our Social Sector Strategy. Indeed, a forthcoming IDB publication by Maria Caridad Araujo, Florencia Lopez Boo and Juan Manuel Puyana has collected detailed information on 42 childhood development programs in 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, showing that the region displays tremendous heterogeneity, including coverage. The latter has to be taken into account when thinking about the MDGs. The Organization of Ibero-American States includes comprehensive early childhood care as one of the eleven regional post-2015 education goals outlined in their “Metas Educativas 2021” publication.
Of course, the MDGs are not the panacea for global development. Their success largely depends on how targets are set, how progress is measured, how donors and borrowing countries are held accountable, and, especially in the case of early childhood education, how quality is defined. Nevertheless, the MDGs will continue to define priorities for the foreseeable future. It is therefore essential that early childhood development becomes a significant component of the post-2015 framework.
Participate in the debate through the online platforms established by the United Nations and Overseas Development Institute, and help ensure that this time around, comprehensive early childhood development efforts are prioritized not as a secondary component of the education agenda, but rather as an essential and powerful tool to stop the cycle of poverty.
Jane Leer has a B.A. from the University of California, Berkely, in Development Studies. Presently Jane Works as a consultant in the IDB office in Managua, Nicaragua, where she supports early childhood projects.