Speakers at AKU’s International Conference on Nutrition and Early Human Development noted that ECD explores how a child’s early years of development set the foundation for the attainment of their full physical, emotional, and cognitive potential.
Across the developing world, 249 million under five years of age are not reaching their full potential, according to The Lancet. Research shows that a US$ 1 investment in ECD results in up to US$ 17 worth of dividends for society. However, experts at the conference noted that most governments fail to achieve these gains since ECD policies are narrowly viewed through the lens of healthcare or education.
“A thriving child needs access to much more than just healthcare and education,” said Dr Ghazala Rafique, director of AKU’s Human Development Program (HDP) in Pakistan and conference co-chair.
Adequate nutrition, equal access to opportunities, and a safe, stimulating home environment are some of the many other determinants of a child's wellbeing that fall outside the remit of single ministries, Dr Rafique added. "Poor policymaking and strategies in any one of these areas have knock-on effects on Pakistan's other social indicators, which is why integrated planning in early childhood development is so important."
Speakers at the event stated that Pakistan’s health and education systems tend to work in isolation, which results in many missed opportunities. The problem of departments working in silos results in a focus on meeting targets linked to childhood survival and school enrollment rather than building a system that addresses deeper issues such as inequality, poverty, and gender inequities that are at the root of our development challenges.
They called for the creation of a ministry for child health in Pakistan that would enable a long-term approach to address the country’s interconnected development problems.
Speaking about the promise of such programs in Pakistan, Dr Rafique shared that mothers who bring their children to a basic health unit for vaccination can easily be informed of the importance of creating a stimulating learning environment at home. Similarly, she noted that schools could make a contribution to good health and nutrition by incorporating health messages into the curriculum.
Professor Kofi Marfo, director of AKU's Institute for Human Development (IHD), noted that while the creation of institutions with an integrated mandate is important, they require political will in order to make a real-world impact. He noted that Colombia had had a task force within its presidency, which had a strong mandate to implement integrated policies.
Experts agreed that Pakistan also needs to establish a parliamentary caucus that would ensure children’s interests and the value of ECD remains on the legislated agenda.
Other speakers pointed to how a myopic view of the importance of education in ECD was holding back progress in the field. Professor Marfo said many countries incorrectly view education as starting when a child steps into school even though a child’s peak brain development occurs in the first year of life. This suggests that the education ministry needs to broaden its focus beyond schools and to explore how parents can be motivated to create a stimulating learning environment in the home.
Pursuing an integrated approach to ECD can help to achieve targets under seven Sustainable Development Goals such as No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, and Reduced Inequalities, speakers noted.
The three-day conference in Karachi was attended by over 200 academics, policymakers, experts, and ECD professionals from 26 countries around the world.