“Learning begins at birth,” was the impactful message stated by the global education leaders in 2001. Now, 15 years later, these ideals have a more prominent place in the global development itinerary, and we’re all cheering.
Expanding on the somewhat narrow education agenda that was previously set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have prioritized access to early childhood development, which we think is an important new addition.
Early childhood education
There have been significant resources put into primary school education, and with good reason as 58 million primary-school-aged children are out of school globally. However, there is still a large gap in education development, with a majority of programs missing the opportunity to engage children—and encourage learning—in their most absorbent years prior to primary school.
USAID identifies this early childhood period as “a critical foundational moment in human development.”
In Malawi, more than 82% of children under the age of five do not have access to early childhood education, leaving very few the opportunity to attend pre-school before joining formal primary education. As a result, these children are ill prepared and do not perform as well, increasing the number of children that don’t enroll or drop out of school.
Our colleague, Alfred Mwenifumbo, is managing an Early Childhood Development (ECD) program in Malawi on behalf of a client. He has seen first-hand the detrimental cycle that families find themselves in if they have no access to pre-school education or child care resources. The ECD program was designed to help communities take ownership to solve this problem.
“We brought together local community leaders to establish and run ECD centers at existing church structures within their communities. These ECDs allow the mothers of toddlers to be able to carry out gainful chores for the family’s self-improvement apart from giving the children a kick start for successful education. By using existing community infrastructure, and creating income-generating activities like establishing local grinding mill, more members of the community are engaged and prioritize early childhood learning,” says Mwenifumbo.
Along with education gaps in Malawi, many children do not receive the proper nutrition they need, and become sick or malnourished before the age of five. Additionally, mothers typically have to stay home with their toddlers, unable to work and provide income, which keeps families more susceptible to poverty.
As a result, older siblings—typically girls—are pulled out of school to watch over the youngest children so that the mothers can work. The cycle continues, creating even larger gaps in education, higher drop-out rates, and causing gender inequality.
The SDGs acknowledge many of these issues, listing gender equality, hunger, poverty, and equitable quality education as some of the many development goals for the next 15 years, linking them to one another and acknowledging their intertwined complexities.
Which is why, when developing an international development program, we spend a lot of time examining an issue and thinking about how to address it holistically.
Through the ECD program, children have a place to attend pre-school, allowing their mothers to return to work and support their family financially, and permitting older girls to stay in school and continue their education.
Children also receive a free meal, which encourages more families to send their children to pre-school, and decreases a child’s chances of being malnourished before ever entering primary school. And they learn foundational skills and knowledge that increases their chances of doing well in their subsequent schooling.
Through this one program, we’ve been able to positively impact childcare, education, nutrition support, gender equality, and micro-enterprise. Can you say killing five birds with one stone?
This new kind of comprehensive thinking encompasses what the SDGs stand for: creative and sustainable programs that integrate numerous initiatives and support entire communities. These goals will open doors for the world to make big changes, and we’re glad that it gives a framework to help solve global development issues in a more comprehensive way.