Opinion: The Role of Early Childhood Development in Achieving the SDGs

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While Rukayat Abba, 20, from Otukpo Local Government Area of Benue State is grateful she is able to successfully give birth to her first child without the challenges associated with childbirth in many rural and sub urban areas, especially in the face of unaffordable and unaccessible healthcare in a typical rural community in Northern Nigeria. She is currently not a happy woman. She is faced with the inability to provide the basic needs for her daughter’s proper early life development.

Unlike some other families who can provide food, education, social lives, and other essential things for their young children, Rukayat and her husband considers these luxuries, hence their daughter, Jumai, who is almost two years old, is not getting all she needs for a proper early life development. They only live on about a dollar per day.

Even at an early life, Jumai wakes up to hunger almost every morning, eats from the little the parents can afford from menial jobs they do. Other children, like her, are obviously in nursery or kindergarten at age two. But school is not Jumai’s parents’ agenda for her. Malnourishment is the first thing the parents are hoping to overcome, but the more they try, the more their daughter is losing time to underdevelopment. By age five, she must have ended up loosing a significant part of what she needs to tackle life as an adult.

Rukayat’s family is not the only one suffering from inability to provide at least the basic needs for their children under five years old. Thousands of Nigerian families continue to grapple with, majorly, malnourishment in their children. In fact, over 11 million Nigerian children are malnourished in the country, with a major chunk of the figure tilted towards those living in Northern Nigeria. Partly due to the activities of insurgents that have ravaged the region in recent years.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says an infant or an under five-year-old who is not well fed, or exposed to learnings needed for optimal development of the brain, may end up growing up without a well developed mental, physical and psychological capacity required to go through life properly.
The world health body says when a child is not getting the required nutrients, brain and physical developments will be impeded and will most likely affect his or her performance in school, level of critical reasoning, and life challenges.

According to a nutritionist and a child health advocate, Dr. Eunice Oleghe, the inclusion of early childhood development in the sustainable development goal (SDG) means that government must now focus on developing the millions of early lives through education, health and adequate nutrition, adding that this would go a long way in also benefitting the country in many ways.

“The best investment anybody can give to the society is to invest in early childhood as it provides ripple and positive effects later on in life.”

But how will Investment in early childhood help Nigeria achieve its SDG? Oleghe provides a guide. She says with goals one to four focusing on hunger, health, and education, if a government focused on providing inclusive, quality education for all and promoting

lifelong learning, at the end of the day, government must have succeeded in tackling hunger, education and health.

“A child whose brain is well developed would most likely not have to grapple with certain types of diseases later in life. And by so doing we are also building a healthy nation and reducing mortality rates. So this goal is very important to an all-round development of not just a people, but a country in general.

“There is increasing evidence that delivering quality interventions in the early years is cost-effective, reduces health inequities, improves learning and academic attainment, lowers crimeandviolence and can improve adult healthand economicproductivity,” she added.

On his part, the Senate Committee Chairman, Senator, Lanre Tejuosho, says the toll malnutrition takes on Nigeria’s economy cannot be ignored, especially when it affects children who would later in life run the economy. According to him, poor nutrition impedes cognitive and physical development, which translates to decreased learning ability, reduced productivity in adult years and increased healthcare costs.

“African countries lose an average of eight per cent of their annual GDP due to malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies alone result in a USD 1.5 billion loss in Nigeria each year. On the flipside, every dollar invested in nutrition in Nigeria has an average return of nearly USD 7. These figures leave little doubt of the economic potential of nutrition. If Nigeria is to compete in the global economy and supercharge the potential demographic dividend, it will need to ensure its children are well nourished.

“Progress is possible, and we now know what works. Targeting women and children especially during the first 1,000 days of life with interventions like food fortification and breastfeeding promotion, has proven to yield significant results and end the corrosive cycle of multi-generational malnutrition.”

He said conversely inaction in those first 1,000 days likely means that any later interventions will be too little, too late, and too costly. Adding that policymakers have structured the National Food and Nutrition Policy on this knowledge selecting and costing nutrition programmes to maximise impact, all but guaranteeing a strong return on investment and improving the health of Nigerian’s population. “But investments in these interventions in Nigeria remain much too low and significantly lower than neighboring countries.

“Scaling up such proven interventions could help Nigeria reach the World Health Assembly (WHA) target of reducing stunting by 40 per cent by 2025 and add USD 29 billion to our economy. It is encouraging to note that rates of chronic malnutrition vary considerably between states in Nigeria, with some stunting rates among children at more than 50 per cent and with several others with rates around 20 per cent. This indicates that it is possible to address malnutrition even in the complex Nigerian environment,” he said.

Tejuosho said policymakers now need to marry the political will that gave rise to the National Food and Nutrition Policy with the actions needed to achieve impact. “The recent high-level policy dialogue, “Nigeria’s Nutrition Crisis,” which I chaired, hosted by the Nigerian Senate Committee on Health and Federal Ministry of Health, resulted in a call for a USD 305 million (N1 billion) investment in nutrition in the 2017 budget at the very least, which closely aligns with the government’s costed plan to scale-up a set of effective nutrition programs across the country. The Senate Committee on Health will be on the lookout for this as we deliberate on the 2017 budget proposals.

According to him, Nigeria can no longer afford to let policies gather dust on a shelf; “government leaders must invest in and implement strong nutrition policies. Nigeria has an ambitious vision of becoming one of the largest economies in the world and establishing itself as a significant player in the global economic and political arena. This vision will not be realised unless we follow through on our commitments to improve nutrition. With increased leadership and action, Nigeria has the potential to make unprecedented progress that will be evident for generations to come – that is the change we promised. There is no time like the present,” he added.

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By Martins Ifijeh

The Opinion piece first appeared on This Day

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