We Need A 'Whole Child' Approach

Last week, in a room packed full of children's rights and education advocates and high level experts, World Bank President Jim Kim and UNICEF Executive Director Tony Lake announced a new alliance to put early childhood development (ECD) on top of the global agenda.

They both expressed their personal commitment to improving access to quality ECD services for young children. Mr. Kim described how he is kept awake at night by the fact that we are setting countries up for failure by not investing in ECD. Kim insisted we "need a robust global plan to hold all of us accountable" as well as a 'Paris moment' for ECD." Mr. Lake discussed in detail the toll that violence, abuse, and neglect have on the healthy development of children and called for an expanded definition of ECD that includes protection and stimulation along with nutrition.

Good high-profile rhetoric is a great sign that political will is shifting. What we also need now is for this growing political will to be backed up not only by a serious scale-up of new and better financing from all sources but also by a revolution in the way we approach spending new and current financing.

Kim called for a "whole of government approach" to ECD provision, spanning different ministries and multiple sectors. This is exactly right, but more to the point we need a "whole child" approach that looks first at the child and then at all aspects of the package needed to ensure healthy development -- health, nutrition, protection, and stimulation.

What does a whole child approach look like? It means everything from ensuring that aid agencies are working across departments like health and education at the global level to ensure that their interventions are mutually supportive and targeted at each others objectives for children, as well as doing what we are already doing much better at the clinic and community level.

A few months ago, I visited PATH's Care for Development work in Kisimu, Kenya supported by the Hilton Foundation. Through these programs, health care workers have been trained to look at caregivers and children differently to integrate play and stimulation for cognitive development into every interaction. For children and caregivers, this can mean the difference between a vaccine being a scary jab in the arm by a stranger or a teaching and learning opportunity. By asking the child questions, by tickling the child, by offering toys and introducing play into the interaction caregivers and health care providers have a chance to discuss the role of play and stimulation on a child's future learning abilities. PATH, the Aga Khan Foundation and others are committed to supporting this type of intervention that strengthen the work that is already happening to meet families and communities where they are in support of children.

The scientific evidence on ECD -- showcased at last week's event -- makes it abundantly clear why these types of interventions are critical. The question now is whether all this evidence will begin to transform the way we design, fund and deliver aid for children. Current investments in education not only do not reflect the evidence that early investments reap the highest rewards, they seem to actually reject this evidence. Investments reject not only the science, but the economic evidence that early investments mean the greatest returns for individuals and economies.

Investing early in quality health and cognitive development for children is the single greatest thing we can do to build an equitable world. The new World Bank, UNICEF partnership is a big step in the right direction. But Kim is right. So far, we have collectively failed to help all parents provide adequate nutrition, safe environments, and sufficient stimulation to children and we should all be losing sleep over it.

The hard work has only just begun.