Re-set the starting line so no child is left behind

Early childhood education is a smart investment. If governments and donors boost funding to it, the result would be a win for everyone.
A six-month-old baby boy looks to camera, smiling widely from his mother’s arms while she looks proudly at him. The mother wears a loose, ornate green cloth over her head. Both are indoors, possibly at a clinic in Tanzania following the baby’s cataract surgery.

By the age of five, 90% of a child’s brain has already developed. It’s a small window through which the best care and education can yield amazing results. Miss that window, or deprive a child of this essential support in early childhood, and the damage is irreversible. For young children, falling behind often means being left behind. 

Given how important those precious early years are, you’d think that the funding allocated to them would be substantial. But as our new research report, Leave no child behind, reveals, investment in early childhood development is critically low – and declining. Children are being left behind exactly when they need help the most.

Children with disabilities at highest risk

Babies and children with disabilities – particularly girls – in the poorest countries are at greatest risk. A lack of funding, inadequate data measurement, the absence of policies and discrimination mean that they’re being left behind from birth. 

This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of children under five with development disabilities has increased by more than 70% to 14.7 million since 2016. 

COVID-19 casualties

The COVID-19 crisis is making matters worse. Not only has it exposed gaps in funding, policy and programmes for our youngest, but it’s also having grave overall consequences. 

Even before the pandemic, around 250 million children under five were at risk of not reaching their full developmental potential. Just over half a billion children currently live below the poverty line. As a result of the many restrictions required to contain COVID-19, around 117 million more children could join them. 

Four-year-old Zindoga João sits at the heart of his mother’s warm embrace. He lives in Mozambique, where 82% of children live in poverty. Born with a physical disability, Zindoga was unable to sit up and spent his days crying, when Light for the World Mozambique’s inclusive community programme intervened. “Now he can move around and play football, his favourite game,” says his mother, Maria. Zindoga should have started school by now, but it’s closed due to COVID-19. “I am afraid that his progress will be lost, she says. “All his improvements could go backwards because of COVID-19.”  © Light for the World

A gateway right to human rights

At the 2018 G20 summit, governments agreed to invest substantially in inclusive early childhood development programmes. 

They did this because early childhood development is a human right. It’s also a gateway to other rights, enabling people to fulfil their human, social and economic potential. The 2030 global goals, which all governments have committed to, frame early childhood development as the most efficient route out of poverty. 

But governments and donors are falling short. As Leave no child behind shows, not only is funding shrinking, it’s also failing to target those who need it most: children with disabilities. 

Funding shortfall

Supported by the Open Society Foundations Early Childhood Programme with research from Light for the World and partners*, Leave no child behind examines what 10 influential international donors spend on inclusive early childhood development. Focus countries were Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe because they face the most serious challenges in this area. 

Among the donors profiled are UNICEF, the World Bank plus six countries: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and USA. Of them, UNICEF was the only one to deliberately target its early childhood investments at the most marginalised children. UNICEF also allocated the largest proportion of its aid budget – 41% – to early childhood development. At the opposite end of the scale was Germany, earmarking just 0.5%. 

Every child counts

Worryingly, the report exposes a consistent data gap. Donors are not measuring how much they allocate to inclusive early childhood development let alone how much of that funding is targeting vulnerable children. 

Apart from UNICEF, none of the donors are targeting them. And even UNICEF has a way to go. To date, only 62% of its early childhood education and intervention programmes target all children, including those with disabilities.

Countries themselves are not collecting the right data. Donors should support them in their efforts to measure how many vulnerable children and children with disabilities are and are not accessing early childhood education. Data should be broken down by age and gender, too. 

Re-setting the starting line

Above all, donors need to increase their spending. Inclusive early childhood education is a smart investment with high returns. In sub-Saharan Africa, every dollar spent increasing pre-primary school enrolment generates an estimated 33% return on investment. It’s relatively inexpensive, too: expanding early childhood development services costs just 50 cents per person per year. 

“The biggest gains are to be made from targeting the most disadvantaged children,” says Nafisa Baboo, Light for the World’s Director of Inclusive Education and co-author of the report. “We need increased funding for inclusive programmes so that children with disabilities benefit from the outset. Governments and donors need to prioritise this now as we build more resilient systems to support our most vulnerable today and in a post-COVID world.” 

With committed investment, we can re-set the starting line for millions of children worldwide so they can re-write their own story – a story where every child matters and no one is left behind.

*Leave no child behind is a joint study by the Early Childhood Development Action Network, Global Campaign for Education, International Disability and Development Consortium, and Light for the World, made possible by funding from the Open Society Foundations

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