The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have achieved much for children all over the world. By helping to channel political commitment and investments, they have contributed to reducing child mortality and increasing educational enrolment. But with the MDGs due to expire in 2015, people are increasingly talking about what should happen next. However, few of them are talking about Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE). And they should be.
The reasons for investing in ECDE programmes are numerous and interrelated. A child's ability to think, form relationships and live up to his or her full potential is directly related to the synergistic effect of good health, good nutrition and appropriate stimulation and interaction with others. A large body of research has proven the importance of early brain development and the need for good health and nutrition.
Research has proven that children who participate in well-conceived ECDE programmes tend to be more successful in school, are more competent socially and emotionally, and show higher verbal and intellectual development during early childhood than children who are not enrolled in high quality programmes.
ECDE encourages greater social equity, increases the efficacy of other investments, and addresses the needs of mothers while helping their children. Early childhood interventions in health and nutrition programmes increase children's chances of survival. Interventions in education programmes prepare children for school, improving their performance and reducing the need for repetition. And the World Bank has highlighted how integrated programmes for young children can modify the effects of socioeconomic and gender-related inequities - some of the most entrenched causes of poverty.
A healthy cognitive and emotional development in the early years also translates into tangible economic returns. Early interventions yield higher returns as a preventive measure compared with remedial services later in life, while policies that seek to remedy deficits incurred in the early years are much more costly than initial investments in the early years.
Ensuring healthy child development, therefore, is an investment in a country's future workforce and capacity to thrive economically and as a society.
And yet ECDE is not one of the issues currently under consideration for inclusion in the post-2015 development framework - neither as a goal, indicator, target, nor indeed as a subject for consideration in any form or fashion. And it should be because ECDE is key to the achievement of many of the priority outcomes that will feature on the post-2015 agenda - poverty reduction, primary education, child survival and nutrition - and because it has been the subject of numerous UN conferences and resolutions over the years and no one doubts its long-term impact.
In addition, 2015 will be a watershed year for the global educational development community. It will not only see the end of the MDGs but also the current commitments under the Education for All (EFA) movement - so 2015 will be an absolutely critical year for education when new commitments will be agreed that will follow on from the MDGs and EFA goals.
Therefore, it is important that all ECDE advocates as well as social, health and education service providers, academics and NGOs in southern Africa should commit themselves to prioritising ECDE in the Post-2015 Development Agenda - by building on the normative frameworks such as the Millennium Declaration, a World Fit for Children and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It will be important to examine the evidence base on ECDE in the context of the emerging post-2015 priorities, with a view to identifying opportunities for positioning ECDE on the post-2015 development agenda. Advocates will have to demonstrate that effective ECDE can contribute to progress on broader goals and that ECDE should be incorporated into the development agenda as clear targets or indicators.
Getting ECDE accepted as a content issue will require deliberate advocacy in the processes that will develop the elements of the post-2015 framework. However, unlike in 2000 when the MDGs were being developed, there have not been many conferences so far whose outcomes can be used to inform the new goals, targets and indicators. But there is still time - and still space - for committed advocates to promote ECDE for the benefit of all children. Indeed, considerable work has been done in many areas in recent years, such as southern Africa where OSISA has launched a major ECDE research and advocacy programme.
In particular, the consultative group on ECDE - in its background paper Positioning Early Childhood Development in the Post-2015 Development Framework - postulates that effective participation will require actions to be taken at two levels:
The United Nations System
The key decisions will be taken through processes led by the UN. Therefore, it is vitally important that leading ECDE advocates have the ability to participate in these UN-led processes. This will require the following actions:
Agree on the themes and potential goals, targets and indicators that will be used as advocacy entry points for the ECDE community;
Develop key messages and supporting material on the themes that will be used as entry points;
Register leading ECDE advocates as members of Major Groups within the UN system, including the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), as these are the fora where critical decisions will be taken. There are a variety of Major Groups that people can seek to join, including the Major Groups on NGOs, Children and Youth. There is a formal process for such affiliation, which should be started immediately since the SDG process is mandated to report to the General Assembly in one year;
Use participation in the Major Group(s) to mount a general awareness campaign throughout the UN system, with a limited number of well-chosen and well-targeted, key messages that are seen and heard by multiple audiences;
Lobby the chairmen and facilitators of the working groups dealing with Primary Education, Poverty Reduction, Child Survival and Nutrition; and,
Participate in the UN meetings on these subjects, including the Commission on Sustainable Development sessions and the negotiating sessions. It will be useful to identify an organisation to lead this effort, which will appoint a designated team to work on this and which will be supported by the other ECDE advocates.National and Regional Preparatory Processes
National and Regional Preparatory Processes
Disseminate key messages and supporting material on the themes that will be used as entry points to national and regional advocates;
Ensure that national and regional ECDE advocates participate actively in the MDG and SDG reviews and preparatory meetings in their respective countries and regions with a view to ensuring that the need for ECDE's incorporation into the post-2015 agenda gets included in the reports from these preparatory activities; and
Carry out general public education and awareness activities at the national and regional levels, especially targeting the officials that are leading these processes.
If these steps are taken and if ECDE advocates come together to promote the importance of ECDE for the future - and for the achievement of whatever goals are agreed upon post-2015 - then there is a real chance that ECDE will be incorporated into the next development framework and help to secure even greater gains for the world's children.