Erasing the Gap Between Policy and Provision: The Importance of Action in Early Childhood Development

Sherri Le Mottee

I once saw a poster that said: Children are such a nice way to start human beings.  The sentiment resonates for me.  But, if I were to rewrite the poster, I would probably lean toward something like: Children are a cutting-edge start to human life

They arrive in the world with a built in capacity to explore, grow and develop. At 22 days, a newly conceived human fetus has a heartbeat.  The nine months it will spend in the womb are a critical period to its ongoing development, growth and potential.  It is claimed by some early development specialists that babies begin to exercise many of their senses and to learn about the world around them during the last trimester of pregnancy—and maybe even before.  Indications are that 90% of brain development is complete by age 3, beginning in-utero as a bottom up process with simple circuits and skills set first as the scaffolding for additional layering of complexity and capacity over time. 

It is amazing that optimizing this time of opportunity doesn’t really require much more than the basics. Love, good nutrition, health care and early stimulation. Mothers or primary caregivers are responsible for much of this ‘care’.  Ordinary magic is what psychologist Anne Masten calls the connection between the primary care giver and a young baby or child. Unfortunately, many infants and children across the world, don’t get these simple benefits.  Children who are conceived into environments where they are exposed to high levels of stress, poverty, substance abuse, war, domestic violence or neglect, are especially at risk.  Economist James Heckman’s argues that investment in early education from birth to age five, particularly for disadvantaged children, “reduces the achievement gap, reduces the need for special education, increases the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lowers the crime rate, and reduces overall social costs”.   

Many politicians, educationalist, medical specialists and development experts recognize the importance of investing in young children, mothers and families.  They acknowledge that this investment is the right of each child and possibly a kind of socio-economic vaccination that will make a difference to the success of nations. The trouble is that in many instances policies have not translated into reality on the ground.  The net result is that we continue, mostly inadvertently, to perpetuate inequality.  This is a global problem.  In 2007, the Lancet estimated that more than 200 million children under the age of five were unlikely to attain their development potential, citing poverty, nutritional deficiencies, and inadequate learning opportunities as core risk factors.  Four years later, UNICEF (2011) reported that 165 million young children globally would be stunted while approximately 6 million would die before they turned five.

While shifting the policy environment is important and a good place to start with changing these realities, it simply is not enough!  Our failure to change the current statics means we are failing millions of children every day.  This damage, largely caused by inaction at delivery level will, in all probability, never be put right. While I am by no means advocating that policy environments are not critical to enabling provision for children, perhaps, starting in a different place or in multiple places will enable us to speed up delivery.  Policy work must be matched by endeavors on the ground in communities that begin with children and seek to unsettle and reinvigorate systems from the bottom up.  By focusing on the needs of the child, we step away from the disconnect in provision that is created by sharing responsibility for young children across a range of government departments. Instead, we can look to a convergence of provision that reduces fragmentation and supports the holistic development of children. International ECD policy expert, Emily Vargas-Baron (2005), reminds us that “the holistic nature of child development requires the involvement of multiple partners across ministries, parents, communities, non-governmental organisations, and other stakeholders”.

Our knowledge of early childhood development has evolved significantly in recent years, we know what children need and when they need it.  Now, we need to sort out how to get the right dose and quality to populations of children.  Jack Shonkoff, the influential Director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, makes a strong argument in this regard, claiming that “unprecedented opportunities to catalyze a new era in early childhood policy and practice guided by science. This science-based future must be driven by leadership that combines a strong sense of civic responsibility, an informed understanding of the positive returns that can be generated by wise investment, and a willingness to explore new ideas”.

Sherri Le Mottee is an Early Childhood Development Specialist Consultant at the DG Murray Trust, where she works to help ECD initiatives in South Africa bring quality interventions to scale. 

Photo Credit: Centre for Early Childhood Development

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