Idealisoa Ravaohelimanana, a 25-year-old mother of two, routinely visits the community nutrition center in Andafiavaratra village to monitor her baby Tinah’s growth. Idealisoa has also been sending her four-year-old son to preschool, because she feels that this has made him livelier and more curious than the other young children around.
Mothers have always known that investing in the earliest years of life matters but they don’t always know why. Today, there is also a growing body of scientific and economic evidence which shows that what happens to children between conception and age five—whether they are healthy and well nourished, how they are cared for, their exposure to language and their exposure to stress—has a profound impact on their future learning ability, their ability to interact with others and even, their income as adults. Ultimately, this affects human capital accumulation and the competitiveness of nations.
While we don’t know what new technologies and scientific breakthroughs will remake the world in the next few decades, one thing is certain: The economies of the future will require a workforce that can reason, analyze, collaborate, and quickly adapt to keep pace with innovation.
Despite these clear implications, millions of young children are not able to reach their full potential because of inadequate nutrition, early stimulation and learning, or exposure to violence and neglect. Worldwide, 25 percent of children under age five exhibit signs of having suffered from chronic malnutrition, they are stunted short for their age, and preschool education is not yet the norm. In Madagascar, the prevalence of stunting is a staggering 47 percent and just 28 percent of children get to attend preschool.
The fact that only half of Madagascar’s children under five get these advantages means that Madagascar may not achieve its full potential long-term economic development. Without maximizing people power, a country cannot sustainably transform the future trajectory of its growth and competitiveness or prepare its workforce for the more highly-skilled jobs of the future. Children who benefit from good health care, good nutrition, early learning and nurturing care are hardwired to learn more and earn more.
Madagascar as a nation has recognized that something drastic has to be done to ensure that it gains these advantages. The government has shown growing commitment by not only increasing its strategic investment in young children—it has increased preschool coverage from 9 percent to 28 percent in 2015—but also by trying to learn from countries that have demonstrated success.
Last April, for instance, a group from Madagascar visited Peru to learn how the Peruvian government cut chronic malnutrition by half in less than a decade. The Peruvian success in reducing stunting has shown the world that much can be achieved in a short time.
There is good news from other African countries too. The most effective national strategies empower families with the time, resources and skills to provide nurturing care. They target the most vulnerable young families with high-impact intervention packages and streamline service delivery.
One country where that model has worked well is Senegal. With strong political leadership at the highest levels, Senegal integrated a low-cost service delivery system and coordinated with NGOs and a vast network of community volunteers to reduce its stunting rate from more than 30 percent in the late 1990s, to approximately 18–19 percent in 2014, one of the lowest rates in sub-Saharan Africa.
What will it take for Madagascar to follow suit? Lesson one is that investing in children is a holistic business, calling for a ‘whole of government approach’ that coordinates the delivery of critical services across sectors – health, nutrition, education, social protection, water and sanitation. Lesson two is that governments will do this better and faster in partnership—with civil society, with the private sector, with development partners.
At the World Bank Group, building human capital is at the very heart of our strategy to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. This is not only because we know that investing in people—beginning with young children—is the right thing to do, we also know that it is the smart thing to do. Human capital accounts for as much as two-thirds of the income variation between national economies. Since smart and timely investments in the early years of life play a central role in shaping the trajectory of nations, we are excited to support Madagascar in scaling up its efforts at this key stage of the life cycle. Because, put simply, we are convinced that investing early delivers healthy, educated, productive and resilient people who are able to fuel stronger children, stronger households and stronger economies.