Investing in Early Childhood – An “Irresistible” Opportunity

At the Clinton Global Initiative, it’s all about bringing together the movers and shakers from all sectors of society – government, business, NGO and international organizations. A panel with the lofty title of “The Early Years: An Irresistible Investment Opportunity” brought together a select group of individuals to speak about the importance of dedicating resources to supporting early childhood development: Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Executive Director, Unicef;  Joyce Banda, President of the Republic of Malawi; Bill Goodwyn, Chief Executive Officer, Discovery Education, Discovery Communications Inc.; Carolyn S. Miles, President and CEO, Save the Children; and Jay Naidoo, Chairman, The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Throughout the conversation, Jay Naidoo stole the show with his enthusiastic, powerful remarks. Naidoo spoke about the need to stop viewing “the poor as victims, when they often support entire families on $1 or 2 a day.” While this may seem like an obvious thing to say for people thinking about or working in the development sector, in practice, the poor are rarely seen as agents of their own destiny. Panelists spoke about how investing in the “first 1000 days” of a child’s life is absolutely critical; how it sets the stage for a productive and healthy adulthood. One of the messages repeated throughout the discussion – which reminded me a lot of discussions from the 2010 Women Deliver conference – is that investing in early childhood is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. It’s good economics! It helps improve GDP and economic outcomes! It’s an investment in the future! While all these statements are true, it is a difficult point to make to the business people who form the majority of the CGI audience, for who returns on investment preferably translate into actual dollars, not GDP percentage points a few decades down the line.

Carolyn Miles and Jay Naidoo both highlighted the fact that we mostly know how to decrease child mortality and morbidity – improving nutrition in the early years, community health and hygiene education, getting mothers involved, straightforward interventions like the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of an infant’s like. We’ve even developed some innovations that seem to work – Naidoo spoke of sachets of nutrients available in Bangladesh that provide one month’s worth of nutrients for $1, a worthwhile investment for mothers and parents. All that said though, the real crux of the issue – and, the topic of the panel – was to make the case for investment in these solutions.

Towards the end of the discussion, the panelists attempted to make the case for why investing in the early years is an “irresistible” investment. Why is that we should help children under 5 not “just survive, but thrive”, as Geeta Rao Gupta put it in her introductory remarks? Is it, as Joyce Banda expressed, because “a child is a special gift”? Is it about social stability, as suggested by Bill Goodwyn? Is it that investing in the education of young people that can develop to their full potential will make a firm “more competitive as a company, a community, a country” as Jay Naidoo said? These are all true, though they merely begin to cover the reasons for which we need not just investment in the early years, but improved and accelerated action. The case for why investing in early childhood is “irresistible” is reinforced every time a child under 5 dies of a preventable cause. We are all – as a global community – accountable for the way in which we treat our most vulnerable.

Photo credit: CGI photostream on Flickr