There’s a news story that’s often overlooked: the amazing progress globally for children. Today, millions of children have better survival chances than in 1990 — 1 in 26 children died before reaching age 5 in 2017, compared to 1 in 11 in 1990, according to child mortality data from UNICEF.
That is not to ignore the enormous survival challenges that children face around the world, and our global responsibility to address them. But as child deaths continue to drop, we have an opportunity to think about what happens to kids who survive. What can we do to make sure they get the best start in life, the best opportunity to succeed in school, the best preparation for a prosperous future?
That is the crux of early childhood development (ECD). Early childhood (birth to age 3) lays the foundation for human development. During this period, children’s brains can form upwards of 1,000 to almost a million neural connections every second. Proper health care, good nutrition, responsive caregiving, early learning, and protection from violence and abuse — collectively referred to as “nurturing care” — build brains and bodies that provide the foundation for learning, health and well-being.
Unfortunately, too many children miss out on the benefits of nurturing care. It is estimated that 43 percent (or 250 million) of children under 5 years of age in lower-income countries lack essential elements for optimal early development. They do not have nutritious food; they miss out on health care; they are not protected from violence, extreme stress, and conflict; and they are not provided early attachment, stimulation and education. Children with disabilities are especially at risk.
Improving ECD is not just a global development issue; it is increasingly an economic issue. For nations, the price of not investing in early moments means a weaker economy and a greater burden on health, education and welfare systems. In its landmark series, The Lancet found that by failing to make cost-effective investments in ECD, countries forfeit up to twice their current gross domestic product expenditures on health and education.
Which brings us to the Group of 20 (G20), an institution founded to address financial rather than development challenges. Argentina, which has held the rotating presidency of the G-20 for the past year, will host this year’s G-20 summit that begins on Friday. Argentina has set out three key themes: the future of work, infrastructure for development, and a sustainable food future. Under the “future of work” theme, Argentina believes ECD should play a critical role.
The Argentine government worked with UNICEF and others to develop a G-20 Initiative for Early Childhood Development, recognizing the link between early childhood and sustainable development, and the importance of ECD to breaking the cycle of structural poverty and inequality. The G-20 Development Working Group — including U.S. government officials — agreed to support the proposals to invest in the development of every child’s first 1,000 days of life.
For the American Academy of Pediatrics and UNICEF, organizations focused on child development, this is enormously important. It recognizes that the world needs to do more to ensure that children both survive and thrive, and it commits the leaders of the world’s strongest economies to supporting early childhood because it’s important to their children’s futures and their countries’ futures.
At the G-20 summit, we hope the United States and other G-20 members will follow Argentina’s lead and ensure that the importance of ECD is reinforced in the final G-20 Communique. It shows that the world can move forward together to support thriving children and sustainable development.
Mark Engman is managing director of public policy and advocacy for UNICEF USA. He previously served in the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and was legislative assistant for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.). He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon.
Aaron Emmel is manager of global health advocacy initiatives at the American Academy of Pediatrics. He has a decade of experience representing large organizations to federal and United Nations agencies and shaping U.S. and global policies on health, development, security and human rights.