Millions of Children in the Arab World are missing the basic foundations for Healthy Development

May 11, 2015

New World Bank report provides first comprehensive analysis of the state of early childhood development in the Middle East and North Africa region

Rabat, May 12th, 2015­ – Generations of children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will be at a permanent disadvantage according to a new World Bank report, without concerted action to improve access to key development factors during early childhood. With data gathered in twelve countries, Expanding Opportunities for the Next Generation, Early Childhood Development in the Middle East and North Africa reveals serious deficits in early childhood development and large inequalities that are holding the region back, and provides guidelines for policies to ensure all children can reach their full potential.

A growing body of evidence points to early childhood as the most critical stage in human development. Pre-natal care, immunizations, proper nutrition and the cognitive, emotional and social development of children are the foundations for later success in school and adult life. The report identifies significant shortcomings throughout the region in each of these vital components. One in every 40 children dies in the first year of life mostly from preventable causes, one fifth are stunted from malnutrition which puts millions at risk of impaired learning and limited opportunities and only 48 percent have access to iodized salt that is essential for cognitive development. At only 27 percent, pre-primary enrollment is half the global average.

Inequality begins early in life and once entrenched is harder and more costly to reverse – with many of the outcomes irreversible,” said Safaa El-Kogali, World Bank MENA Practice Manager for Education and lead author of the report. “Our research shows that disadvantaged children are the least likely to receive development support, in both the region’s poorer and more developed countries, which will impact their opportunities throughout their life. The good news from global experience is that interventions, especially for disadvantaged children, can have immense impact and dramatically change the lives of millions of children and influence the development trajectories of countries.”

The report was released today at a conference in Rabat hosted jointly by the World Bank and Morocco’s National Observatory for Human Development (ONDH). The event drew senior government delegations from across the region, along with representatives from development organizations, donors, civil society, and academia.  A diverse range of speakers addressed the conference, including the Moroccan Minister of Education and President of ONDH, Rachid Benmokhtar and Claudia Costin, World Bank Senior Director for the Education Global Practice.

The overall goal of the event was to review the report’s finding, share experiences and determine a way forward based on the available evidence and driven by clearly articulated targets.  

The report makes clear that a focus on economic growth alone will not be enough to address the many shortfalls. It requires targeted interventions to address the various dimensions of early childhood development. These include the expansion of pre- and post-natal care. Identifying children at risk for poor growth, monitoring their health, and supporting their nutrition to lower the chances of stunting and impaired brain development. Investments in micronutrients can have especially high returns, as every dollar invested in iodizing salt has been shown to deliver US$15 to US$520 in benefits. The provision of good quality pre-primary schools in poorer neighborhoods can also provide immediate and long-lasting results, by addressing the inequalities of opportunity in early childhood that set the stage for income inequality later in life.

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