Regional ECDE conference begins in SA

OSISA Executive Director gives keynote address

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

December 3rd, 2013

A major conference on Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE) kicked off in Pretoria on December 3rd with a keynote address by Siphosami Malunga, the Executive Director of OSISA.

The conference - hosted by OSISA and the (ECP) - brings together around 150 participants from across southern Africa and furhter afield, including government ministers, ECDE practitioners and experts, representatives from civil society, academia and donors.

For three days they will debate the challenges facing ECDE in the SADC region, particularly the importance of providing greater access to quality services - and agree upon some concrete recommendations to enhance the reach and impact of ECDE services.

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Keynote address by Siphosami Malunga:

“Although the particulars of their lives might differ, millions of mothers and fathers around the world, in both industrialised and developing countries, share the same story: finding and making time, investing energies, stretching resources to provide for their sons and daughters. Their days are consumed in helping their children grow strong and healthy, protecting, teaching, guiding, encouraging their talents and channelling their curiosity, delighting in their enthusiasm and their accomplishments. They search for advice and counsel from informal support networks and community agencies as they struggle, often against great odds, to do right by their children” said the late Professor Kader Asmal, former MP and Minister of Education in South Africa (2001).

As we discuss strategies and agree on plans and interventions to improve access to, and the quality of, early childhood development and education services in our region, we must keep these parents and children in mind so that we leave here having taken some concrete steps that will help to create a better world for them and a better world for all of us. 

And, as we discuss, let us be reminded that in less than two years the world will be called to account on its commitment to education for all goals (EFA). While considerable progress has been made to expand access, especially at primary school level, the world is still lagging behind in providing access to early childhood development and education (ECDE) services. For Southern Africa, the situation is even bleaker – with less than 40 per cent of the children entering school having benefited from access to any form of ECDE services

This is despite a wealth of empirical evidence, which shows that when children are not healthy, have compromised brain functionality due to chronic malnutrition, are not provided with appropriate developmental learning opportunities, do not receive a quality education, and do not feel safe in their home, school or community – all of which can be prevented by  quality ECDE programmes – they will not be able to fulfil their developmental potential with negative consequences that will last into their adult lives.

Evidence has also shown that investment in early childhood development is a human capital investment that leads to the acceleration of long-term economic growth and productivity. In addition there is growing evidence that:

  • The largest part of brain development happens in early years and that it is during this critical period that children develop their abilities to think and speak, learn and reason, and lay the foundation for their values and social behavior as adults;
     
  • Given a healthy start and a solid foundation in the first months and years of their lives, children are less likely to suffer from illnesses, repeat grades, drop out or need remedial services; and
     
  • Young children are capable learners and that suitable educational experience during pre-school years can have a positive impact on school learning.

In the face of such evidence, it is puzzling that the ECDE sector continues to receive the least attention at the policy level – and subsequently suffers from insufficient budgetary allocations. It is not a surprise, therefore, that:

  • On average less than 40 per cent of children in the SADC region have access to any form of ECDE and in some countries the figures are even worse with less than five per cent access;
     
  • There are no formal programmes for young children, especially those under the age of six and where these programmes exist they tend to be run by private establishments, which are usually prohibitively expensive for poor children;
     
  • The poorest and most vulnerable children, who are most likely to benefit from early childhood development programmes, have the least access to them;
     
  • Across SADC, millions of children are born into extreme poverty and are moderately or severely stunted and these children are most at risk of infant death, low birth-weight, stunted growth, poor adjustment to school, increased repetition and school dropout; and
     
  • Millions of children under the age of five die each year, most from preventable diseases across the region.

In addition:

  • ECDE services persistently suffer from insufficient – or non-existent – funding usually with less than one per cent of education budgets being allocated to ECDE in many countries in the region. Moreover, we know that early childhood programmes are often among the first to be cut by governments facing tough economic times;
     
  • Many countries are not taking the necessary policy measures to provide care and education to children and where such policies exist, implementation is a challenge;
     
  • Few countries have established national frameworks for the financing, coordination and supervision of early childhood programmes for young children; and
     
  • Many programmes for young children are sparse and access remains not only inadequate but inequitable, particularly for poor and rural children.

We can all agree that this is unfair, unacceptable and unsustainable. The solution, I believe, is justice and equality. This means advancing rights and opportunities for all children. We are here today because of this very issue and because we want the best for every child in our region. All of us here are working in one way or the other for the well-being of children and it is my privilege to join you today.

In the face of the challenges I have just mentioned, we all know that education remains an instrument of hope through which we can address these challenges and chart a prosperous future for our children – and our communities. Education is also the most effective vehicle for creating an equal and poverty free society. No other strategy is as effective as starting early in life with quality ECDE services, which are fundamental for children’s development.  It is in this context that OSISA supports programmes aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of children - particularly the right to education beginning at an early stage.

For this reason OSISA developed the ‘Getting it Right’ strategy for ECDE to set out priorities and guide its investment in this sector. Over the last three years, we have worked with both state and non-state actors, research and academic institutions, investing over US$7million to shift policy, model best practices, build capacity of ECDE services providers, develop curricula and train practitioners, raise awareness of communities and relevant stakeholders on the importance of ECDE, and conduct research among other interventions.

As OSISA, we are committed to the agenda of social transformation that is embodied in the principles and ideals of open society. Such a transformation must begin early with quality ECDE services.

The ‘Getting it Right’ strategy seeks to advocate for the expansion of ECDE services within the Southern Africa region. We have, therefore, ensured that our interventions respond to the context of the countries in which we work. From programmes that target children from ethnic minority groups, children with disabilities, and children in the most remote rural communities, we have ensured that our programmes target the most excluded, vulnerable and marginalised groups.

We have, at the same time, engaged policy makers to ensure a holistic response and quality services for all and to make sure that policies work for young children. Our approach has also been multi-sectoral – including the private sector – as is evidenced by the representation in this room in order to generate an all-round response that is characteristic of the nature of ECDE. Together we have worked collaboratively to put in place a range of services that support young children to access better quality ECDE services.

And progress is being made. Just last week, the government of Swaziland announced that it was going to introduce Grade O in 50 schools across the country. These schools will be staffed by teachers who are currently being trained thanks to a grant from OSISA to the Ministry of Education and Training. It is a major step – and one that we hope other countries will soon follow.

Our work would not have made the strides it has in the past few years if it were not for the support we have received from our partners across the region. Our partnership with governments through the various Ministries represented here, UN agencies – especially UNICEF and UNESCO – civil society organisations, international NGOs, and research and academic institutions remains an essential tool – without which we would not be able to achieve the ambitious objectives we have set for ourselves. We continue to remain resolute in our vision for the universalisation of ECDE services.  

This conference – the theme of which is ‘quality matters’ – provides us with a space to discuss how we can achieve this.  As we deliberate, we must remember the commitments we have made towards the realisation of the EFA goals and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and in our own constitutions about the welfare of our children. Our countries are also signatories to several international conventions that ensure the well-being of young children. These commitments emphasise the need to develop young children to their fullest potential.

Today, we have an opportunity, and a responsibility to make quality ECDE a reality for our region’s children, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. For this, we need a sustained alliance of partners across all sectors to promote and advance this agenda and I call upon us all to mobilise a stronger commitment to ECDE, which is guided by the principles of equity, inclusion and quality. Only then can we say we have succeeded in making our region a better place for our young ones.

In conclusion, I am hopeful that this conference will provide a platform for all stakeholders to discuss and find solutions to some of the challenges facing children in our time. I look forward to the outcomes of this conference and its recommendations. As OSISA, we remain committed to this agenda as it is a fundamental and critical tool for strengthening the foundations of democracy.

Let me also take this opportunity to express, on behalf of OSISA, our sincerest appreciation to the many community initiatives across the length and breadth of our region, which – despite being run by mainly unqualified personnel and on very limited resources – are taking care of hundreds of thousands of our children in a multitude of different informal and sometimes formal ECDE centres.

To you our partners – both state and none state, academia and research institutions – thank you. In spite of the challenges you face, you are all doing your best to provide for our young ones. And in future, together, we will be able to support so many more.

Our sincerest appreciation also goes to our sister foundation the Open Society Foundations Early Childhood Development Programme for its unwavering commitment to this programme. It is through their financial and technical support that we have been able to push ahead with this critical programme – and start to make a real difference in the lives of our young children.

My call is for us to continue to work together to nurture our children, to let them experience the excitement and the joy of learning, and to provide them with a solid foundation for lifelong learning and development.

I wish to end with a quote by an American Senator, David Vitter, who said "I believe that if children are given the necessary tools to succeed, they will succeed beyond their wildest dreams!"

I agree and I hope this will inspire you as you make your contributions in this very important meeting.

Let me therefore – on behalf of OSISA – welcome you to this conference and wish you fruitful deliberations. 

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