Early childhood development — not a side issue

Dame Tessa Jowell MP and Ivan Lewis MP meet parents and children at the Chilomoni Resource Center in Malawi. Early childhood development should be right at the heart of any development framework, according to Jowell. Photo by: Arjen van de Merwe/Sightsavers

A few weeks ago, I visited alongside fellow British MP Ivan Lewis — the U.K.’s shadow secretary of state for international development — the Chilomoni Resource Center run by international NGO Sightsavers in Blantyre, Malawi.

The center promotes an intensive and structured program of interaction and stimulation which encourages mothers to play with their disabled children, many of whom are visually impaired, and continue to provide that level of care at home. The goal is to improve the level of care for children with disabilities, as well as and find innovative ways to integrate care for these children into mainstream services.

But why is this so important?

Culturally, to play with children, and for mothers to even acknowledge their child has a disability, is a major challenge in Malawi. Coupled with an environment that lacks other sources of support — nutrition, physiotherapy, paediatrics — early childhood development programs rely heavily on community resources.

This is why Sightsavers’ work there is so essential. The weekly sessions to support mothers so they can maximize their child’s development and potential and are a very clear demonstration of how some of the cultural traditions of this country are being challenged.

Early interventions key to post-2015

I travelled to Malawi with Ivan Lewis and Sightsavers as part of a global campaign I am leading to ensure an integrated approach to the organization of services and support in a child’s earliest years is at the heart of any new development framework that replaces the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

We know that you make the biggest difference in a child’s life by investing at the earliest years — from conception through the first five years. The evidence from programs like SureStart in the United Kingdom, supported by what we now know about the neurological development of young children, prove the long-term social and economic benefits of this policy. I believe we have an opportunity to extend those benefits to some of the poorest children in the world. Like the mothers and children I met in Malawi.

The scale of challenge in Malawi was evident: Women are having on average 5.7 children each, 48 percent of children are stunted from under-nutrition in their first five years, public services operate at a fraction of GDP and are heavily supported by donor aid. Early childhood development programs have an annual budget of only 30m kwacha (approximately £60,000 or $92,780). Much of the delivery and funding is devolved to community level and rely on the dedication and passion of teachers like Caroline we met at Chilomoni. The children in Malawi deserve better and more.

Despite these challenges, we left feeling optimistic. There is real will among politicians to rise to this challenge and at the grassroots, first class organisations that can lead this change.

Bridging the gap between high level policy and implementation will be essential. Providing just one paid teacher to raise capacity of other carers, integrating services with existing under-5 health clinics, and utilizing the infrastructure provided by the community-based childcare centers to roll out other essential services for children and families.

We can help countries like Malawi benefit from the demographic dividend, which means more women having fewer children, more children surviving, going to school, having an increasingly bright economic future, their mothers at work, and make sure every bit of government investment works to deliver this progress.

We also need to build alliances with G-8 countries and other developing countries to ensure that early childhood development is not just a side issue — it should be right at the heart of civil society, our fight for social justice and economic development. We cannot afford to squander the talents of so many of the world’s people. We should judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable, including those people with disabilities. They can make a contribution if given an opportunity.

Integrated approach

We set out to learn about how early childhood development programs are delivered and can be made widely available in developing countries. We also wanted to understand more about how the needs of disabled children are met in areas where financial and professional resources are very scarce.

This visit reinforced my conviction in the principles that an integrated approach to early childhood development would bring practical benefits to the poorest children and their families in Malawi and other countries.

If it is right for our children, surely it is right for some of the poorest children in the world? That is why I believe this policy should be at the heart of the new post-2015 framework.

Having learned from the fortitude and resilience of the grassroots and families we met living in unimaginable poverty, we now need to persuade other politician of the virtues of making this a top global priority.

I will take away with me the memory of sitting in a bleak church hall listening to mothers talking about the benefits of the community-based childcare center their children attend and the opportunities in life they will have as a result. Those mothers could have been anywhere in the world.

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About the author

  • Dame Tessa Jowell

    Dame Tessa Jowell is a British politician and former cabinet member under the Labor governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as architect of the London Olympics and MP since 1992. She is currently involved in drawing up a plan to include early intervention schemes like the Sure Start program she founded in the U.K. in the country's international development assistance policy.