United Nations

Children - the best investment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2003, 12:00am

No investment offers a better return than giving children the best start in life. But although investing in such long-term fundamentals is crucial, it can be hard in times of political and economic uncertainty.

Yet, research has shown that for every US$1 spent - I would say invested - on early childhood programmes, countries enjoy cost savings of US$7. That is a pretty spectacular return. But it should not be surprising. It should be obvious.

Young children who receive good early care are less likely to die, get sick, fail in their school education or require remedial services. They will be able to support themselves and their families, push their societies forwards and help to break cycles of illness, deprivation and discrimination. Investing in early childhood plays a direct role in sustainable poverty reduction.

By young, I mean from before birth until the child is established in school at about the age of eight, but the first three years - including the pre-birth period - are particularly vital.

This is when mental and physical capacity are forming and gaining strength; with the right nutrition and stimulation, some parts of a child's brain can nearly double in size in 12 months, without it, the result can be stunting - not just physically but mentally, emotionally and socially.

Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, has long recognised the importance of these early years. More than half our programme budget is devoted to early childhood. But last year, we went one step further. We made integrated early childhood development one of our five priorities (alongside girls' education, immunisation, HIV/Aids and child protection).

Progress in one area contributes to progress in others. Services and skills should be mutually reinforcing. Tackling deficiencies in iron and iodine will improve not just physical health, but long-term brain development. The children of a healthy, educated, secure mother will thrive, rather than simply survive. Enhancing the role of fathers pays equal dividends.

We need to focus most intensely on the under-threes, looking for ways to strengthen families' ability to care for their children, increasing their access to good quality, basic services, promoting gender equality and reinforcing national policies.

It also requires us to look at the health of women, because a young child's future is shaped by its mother's well-being before and during pregnancy.

For parents, none of this will come as a revelation. They know instinctively that their child's needs are intimately connected, and can only be dealt with effectively as a whole. While we regard a holistic approach as new, they see it as self-evident.

Change is never easy. Refocusing our efforts through this multisectoral, holistic approach means some programmes have to undergo restructuring. But our core interests - delivering health, nutrition, clean water, sanitation, education and protection - will not change.

Overall, I believe that this new approach does enable us to make a greater impact on the lives of more children.

Last week, we had the first chance to assess its on-the-ground effectiveness in East Asia and the Pacific. Twenty-seven countries were represented at the Unicef forum on Integrated Early Childhood Development, held from Wedenesday to Friday in Bangkok. Discussions centred on whether we are on track and achieving our aim of real development for children.

Preliminary reports are encouraging. In Myanmar, 600 'mothers' circles' have been started for children. They were designed to provide child care, vitamins and a nutritious meal. But the effects have been much more far-reaching. Some children brought to the groups could not sit, stand or walk. One could not even lift her head. Others, used to being locked up alone in a house all day, would only huddle by themselves in a corner. But after three months, all were catching up to their normal developmental level.

Parents benefit, too. They tell Unicef that they are more patient, do not hit their children as much and pay more attention to their children's needs. That is perhaps the best endorsement we could ask for.

Some may say that this is not the time to ask for more investment. The East Asia and Pacific economies are still tiptoeing into recovery. I say, can we afford not to make this investment?

Morally, there is no choice. Pragmatically, we know the most important resource our regions' economies have is their human capital. Early childhood development is the foundation for that.

Too many countries in this region are failing their children. Almost 35 million of our under-fives are stunted. Every year about 40,000 mothers will die as a result of childbirth. And while great progress has been made in some places, in others the under-five mortality rate is rising.

Some macro indicators are also troubling; in many countries, economic growth seems to be increasing the gap between rich and poor, although this is a region where relative equality has been a strength.

Every day, 90,000 children are born in the East Asia and Pacific countries, joining the 588 million already living there. They deserve what they were promised by world leaders at the UN's Special Session on Children: a world fit for children. The progress of nations is the progress of their people. That progress begins with our youngest children.

Mehr Khan is Unicef's regional director for East Asia and the Pacific