Globally, an estimated 6 million children under the age of five die each year and at least 200 million who survive are at risk of not reaching their full potential. In Nepal, the under-five mortality rate was 35 per 1,000 live births in 2016. At least 70 percent of pre-school age children do not have access to Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) facilities. Development and growth of young children in their formative years in terms of cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential has not received full attention. Nevertheless, optimising children’s development through the combined impact of education, care, health, nutrition, protection and stimulation is fundamental. A majority of children from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, special needs and of ethnic minorities are deprived of ECCD facilities.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and international non-government organisations (INGOs) such as Plan, Save the Children, World Vision, and non-government organisations (NGOs) such as Seto Gurans National Child Development Services have been playing a critical role in early childhood care and development.
The government is the “primary” duty-bearer as an endorser of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The state is also committed to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.2 that aims for ‘quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education for all girls and boys by 2030’. Approximately, 35,000 pre-primary schools/early childhood development facilities have been initiated in Nepal, of which an estimated 6,000 are run by the private sector. Even so, many of these facilities run by the public sector are ad-hoc, and a great many are disorganised and of sub-par quality. They have attracted great criticism.
As part of a project for a leading INGO, I had to visit many ECCD Centres in rural communities in the hills and the Tarai. My team and I were always greeted by smiling and enthusiastic young children between the ages of three and five, who would rush to us and extend their hands for a warm handshake. They looked confident, disciplined and jubilant. I was thrilled by this welcome. And, as an outsider from the metropolis, I marvelled at the remarkable progress made by these young children from disadvantaged families in rural areas in comparison to those ECCD facilities of exceptionally high costs in major cities and urban centres which were attended by children from affluent families.
The routine activities of these children involved singing, dancing, playing games/toys, learning useful signs, drawing pictures of animals, birds and fruits, learning the alphabet and numbers, listening to stories, learning about personal hygiene and sanitation, growth monitoring, midday meals, and sleep time. All of these activities were well executed and clearly enjoyed by the children. Several recreational and educational items were also prepared using inexpensive local materials. For the midday meal, super porridge, 180 ml of pure cow/buffalo milk per child, an egg and a piece of fruit was served to the kids according to a daily menu. The problems of common colds and coughs, fevers, diarrhoea, malnutrition and stunted growth among children had declined tremendously. The health cards of children that were kept to monitor their physical well-being indicated that they were becoming healthier, and they looked stronger as well. Their cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential had developed. These children had good habits and exhibited good behaviour. They were also active participants and served as child-to-child motivators and peer educators at home and within their neighbourhood. Track record showed that attending preschool facilities for a year or two kids enabled children to be competitive and perform well in primary schools. Children were also saved from the vulnerability of abuse, violence, child labour and trafficking.
The cost of child nutrition and the salaries of teachers and caregivers were found to be the more expensive items, but they are considered to be worth investing in, as there should be no compromise when it comes to assuring that vulnerable and disadvantaged children are well provided for. Quality and commitment of teachers and caregivers, and their training and refresher training are critical. A few hours of quality time spent to observe and learn at the ECCD Centre was a stirring experience for me and my team. We also felt a ‘responsibility’ to formulate plans for the expansion of ECCD facilities in other deprived communities. There were at least 500 such ECCD Centres set up and supported by Plan International in several districts during the late 1980s and 1990s. And this number has grown considerably. The ECCD Management Committees/CBOs/NGOs were partners in development. Self-sustainability, unless cost-subsidised, had been a challenge for them for some years.
The entry point
Inclusive ECCD Centres of quality standards could be an ‘entry point’ in child and community development in Nepal. Essentially, when ECCD Centres are coupled with women empowerment programmes, savings and credit cooperatives, socio-economic and paralegal counselling and agro-based vocational and marketing training complemented, excellent results can be produced through a multiplier effect. This is a means of sustainable integrated development. Girls could go to schools as they are freed from sibling care at home and mothers have time for increased socio-economic participation and family income.
Investment in human capital should be first directed towards the young children. As James J Heckman, Professor and Expert in the economics of human development/University of Chicago, says: “Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success, just as early failure breeds later failure.” He argues that “the best way to reduce deficits is to invest in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children, which also reduces the need for costly social spending”. Conceivably, those mass graduates from the vibrant ECCD Centres in the late 1980s and early 1990s must have become a generation of active youths who attributed to transition to the present day Federal Democratic Nepal, and travelled to the Gulf and overseas countries to become a major source of inflow of knowledge, expertise and remittance-income, thus fuelling poverty alleviation and national development. I salute those onetime pre-schoolers!
Early childhood development is a right of every child and assists in their survival, growth and development. Indubitably, it is an edifice on which rests the all-round development of Nepal. Therefore, policy reforms and their strict enforcement
including an increased investment from the current level of an estimated less than 2 percent of the education budget is urgent for enhancing the quality of ECCD centres and ensuring a wider geographic and demographic coverage.