Conference Seeks to Make Early Childhood Development Priority in Africa
Conference Seeks to Make Early Childhood Development Priority in Africa

African educators, policymakers and first ladies met in Dakar this week to discuss how to increase and improve early childhood development on the continent.

When we think of Africa's chief resources, we tend to think of oil, gold or diamonds. But, at this week's Fourth Annual African International Conference on Early Childhood Development, participants said we tend to forget about the continent's most important resource: its people.

Investing in that resource, they say, means investing in children from the moment of conception until age 8, when scientists say 90 percent of a child's brain has been formed.

Yet, half of Africa's children under age 6 live in poverty and do not have access to adequate health care and education. On average, African governments allocate less than ten percent of their primary education budgets to early childhood. UNICEF says only 15 percent of African children have access to preschool.

The conference brought together hundreds of international development partners, educators and the ministers of health, education and finance from more than 30 African countries.

Also in attendance were the first ladies of Senegal, Zanzibar and Cape Verde. The conference was opened by Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who was commended for the success of a preschool initiative launched by his government in 2000.

Ann-Therese N'Dong Jatta, director of UNESCO's Africa Regional Office on Education, says this conference was a call to action to African governments and Africans as a whole. She says they need to take a holistic approach to early childhood development that targets both children and their mothers.

"We have been told from neuroscientists that 70 percent of the brain is developed even before birth," said Ann-Therese N'Dong Jatta. "So in a situation where there is not sufficient healthcare services for prenatal, and during pregnancy, and post-pregnancy, then we are really investing on rehabilitation and that is expensive."

The conference was organized by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa who pointed to continent's high rates of dropout and repetition in the first three years of school. More than half of all children who complete primary school, they said, have not mastered the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Investment in higher education, Jatta says, is wasted if a young child is malnourished or too far behind to succeed in primary school.

Whether you are trying to discourage criminality, build gender equality or increase economic growth, Jatta says ensuring the health and success of young children is really the foundation for a country's overall development.

"So really if we invest at the right time, build the right foundation, we would ensure that the kids are more intelligent, more innovative," she said. "Rather than looking for negative kinds of behavior patterns to survive, they would use their intelligence and do creative things in order to survive."

She and other conference participants say it is an investment countries can't afford not to make.