Photo Credit: UNICEF
“The one thing all children have in common is their rights. Every child has the right to survive and thrive, to be educated, to be free from violence and abuse, to participate and to be heard.” So spoke UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in preparation for Universal Children’s Day on November 20. But rights do not necessarily translate into reality. The truth is that all children do not thrive, a fact that should be cause for reflection rather than celebration.
How do Latin America and the Caribbean’s young children fare? In The Early Years, the IDB finds that, indeed, there is some cause for celebration. The region’s progress in improving child health and nutrition has been nothing short of remarkable. Over the course of the past 50 years, most countries have reduced infant mortality by three-quarters or more. In both 1990 and 2010 roughly 10 million children were born in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of these 10 million children, 428,000 died before their first birthday in 1990, but only 149,000 in 2010. In addition to these absolute declines, some countries have made dramatic improvements in relative terms as well. Compared to other countries with similar GDP per capita, they have gone from levels of infant mortality well above comparators to levels significantly below. The rest of the health picture is similarly bright. Children and adults are growing taller and in most cases, chronic malnutrition is down.
Unfortunately, the picture is less rosy when it comes to other aspects of child development. Deficits in language and cognition are notable, particularly among the poor, and are reflected in poor school performance and test scores throughout children’s educational careers. In a recent test of math among third graders in 14 countries in Latin America, 75% of children in the Dominican Republic could not solve simple addition or multiplication problems. Although the Dominican Republic ranks at the bottom in this test, even in Chile, the region’s highest performer, 10% of children could not solve these problems. Not surprisingly, these dismal results among third graders are repeated among 15-year-olds on the international PISA exams. In turn, test scores are but a precursor of a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams for many of the region’s children.
Every child deserves a chance to realize her dreams. Unfortunately, every child does not have that chance. And parents are not the only ones to blame. Governments also have a role to play in assuring that children have the opportunity to reach their potential. Some children are destined to swim upstream their entire lives because of the poor care they receive during their early years. Improving that level of care is where government can make a difference.
What can governments in Latin America and the Caribbean do to help their children thrive and grow into happy, healthy, productive adults? To begin with, they can spend more on their youngest citizens. As it is, countries in the region spend only 0.4% of GDP on average on early childhood (0-5 years) compared to 1.6% of GDP on middle childhood (6-12 years). Spending on early childhood services and programs makes up less than 6% of total social spending in the region.
More importantly, however, governments must spend better. Building shiny new daycare centers will do little to help children if the quality of services provided within them is not improved. Defining quality, however, is the hard part. It’s not spanking new buildings, state-of-the-art computers, or high-tech teaching aids. It’s not even smaller classes or structured lesson plans. Instead, quality is as ethereal as a child’s very dreams and aspirations. Research shows that at home, in daycare centers, and in early schooling, quality is determined by the interactions of children with those who surround them. Neurological studies demonstrate how the connections young children establish with each other and with adults shape their brains in ways that have lifelong implications. When a caregiver is sensitive and responsive to children’s wants and needs, they begin to blossom and grow. When a teacher or parent provides early stimulation and focused instruction, children learn.
What does this mean for public policy? It means less investment in infrastructure and more money for training, supervision, mentoring, and incentives for caregivers in the gamut of childcare interventions from parenting programs to daycare facilities to kindergarten classrooms. It demands a long-term vision and commitment that transcends political cycles. It requires institutionalizing a system that rewards creativity, innovation, and hard work among educators while weeding out ineffective and counterproductive teachers.
This Universal Children’s Day, take a child by the hand, read her a story, or sing a song together. Then imagine multiplying that connection in communities, countries and around the globe. That would truly be cause for celebration and a major step toward turning children’s rights into reality.
For more on the IDB’s recent research on early childhood development see The Early Years: Child Well-Being and the Role of Public Policy, edited by Samuel Berlinski and Norbert Schady