Thank you, Femi. As some of you know, for the last few years, the World Bank Group has been guided by twin goals – ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity for the poorest 40 percent. These goals are driving us to build a world that is more just and more prosperous – a place where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Sadly, this is not the world we live in today. One of the biggest obstacles to this better world is our collective failure to help parents provide adequate nutrition, safe environments and sufficient stimulation to their children during the first 1,000 days of their lives.
Scientific and economic evidence shows that this failure has life-long consequences. It can lead to stunting and other limitations in development, which are caused by a lack of nutrition, a lack of sufficient stimulation, and exposure to environments that cause stress. Stunting not only leaves children vulnerable to infection, but it can permanently limit their physical and cognitive capacity.
The scale of this problem is massive. One quarter of children under age five worldwide – 159 million children - are stunted. The proportion in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is higher than 36 percent. Even in countries that have done relatively well in terms of economic growth – such as India, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Guatemala –over one-third of children remain stunted. And nearly half of all three- to six-year-olds don’t have access to pre-primary education.
As countries prepare for a more digitalized global economy, I’m deeply concerned that our failure to tackle this challenge is condemning millions of children to lives of exclusion – lives where they won’t have the brain power to succeed in school or in an increasingly digitalized workplace.
The good news is that we know the cost-effective, evidenced-based solutions that can solve this problem – it’s early childhood development, or ECD.
At the World Bank Group, we recognize early childhood development covers the physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional development of children, starting before birth until they enter primary school. These interventions start with adequate maternal and child nutrition and include early stimulation and learning activities.
Providing early childhood development is both morally right and economically smart. Without it, inequality starts at birth, meaning children risk lifelong cognitive deficits through no fault of their own. Children who are poorly nourished, who are stunted, and who do not receive adequate parenting or stimulation before their fifth birthday, are likely to learn less at school and earn less as adults, perpetuating the cycle of poverty across generations.
Competing in today’s digital economy requires a workforce with well-developed brains. How do we expect employers to invest in a country if its workforce is not sufficiently developed physically and or cognitively? Governments that don’t invest in a skilled, healthy, productive workforce are harming their future economic growth.
Science shows that scaling up investments in nutrition and other types of early childhood development services will help end physical stunting while also promoting cognitive and socio-emotional development. Age-appropriate nutrition, responsive care, and psychosocial stimulation help build sound brain architecture for life. From breastfeeding and micronutrient supplements to stimulation by caregivers, early reading, and getting kids out of toxic environments, we’re able to achieve substantial improvements in short periods of time with major returns on the investment.
In 2005, 28 percent of children in Peru were stunted. In just eight years, the country cut this rate in half, to 14 percent. With support from the World Bank, Peru used conditional cash transfers and results-based financing to target assistance to those areas most in need, resulting in rapid progress in rural areas and the poorest communities.
Evidence suggests that an additional dollar invested in quality nutrition and preschool programs will yield a return of between $6 and $17 dollars.
The science is there.
The economics is there.
The evidence is there.
So why do we still have such high stunting rates?
One important factor is a substantial shortfall in political and financial commitment at the national and global level. New estimates suggest that we need $50 billion dollars over the next 10 years to reduce stunting by 40 percent by 2025 – just to reach the current target currently in the Sustainable Development Goals. But I believe we need to be far more ambitious.
The time has come to treat stunting as a development and an economic emergency. We must end childhood stunting and promote optimal development of young children through delivering universal access to ECD services as quickly as possible.
I want to acknowledge the several important global initiatives already working toward these goals, together with many of the partners gathered here today. The Scaling up Nutrition, or SUN, movement, chaired by my friend Tony Lake who is with us today, was launched here at our Spring Meetings six years ago. Fifty-six countries and 100 development partners have joined the SUN movement thus far.
Three years ago, a number of world leaders, businesses, civil society groups, and others came together with the leadership of the UK Government to sign the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact and make financial commitments to prevent at least 20 million children from being stunted and save at least 1.7 million lives by 2020.
The Government of Brazil is preparing to host the second Nutrition for Growth summit this coming August, to assess progress and build further momentum.
We must build on all of this momentum - but collectively we must also do more. The reality is that the sum total of country actions and financial commitments thus far don’t add up to the size and scale we need to address the stunting crisis.
The time also has come for a “whole of government” approach across different ministries and multiple sectors, and coordinated and sustained engagement with the private sector, foundations and civil society to scale up ECD interventions.
So today, I’m delighted to join forces with UNICEF and others here to kick start our joint efforts through a global alliance on early childhood development. My thanks to Tony and his team for our joint work on this.
For our part, the World Bank Group is committed to increasing our investments in ECD programs around the world, including in nutrition, health, early stimulation and learning, and social protection. We’ve already invested $6 billion dollars in these services since 2000, including $3 billion dollars over the last two years. And we are ready to do more - including leveraging new sources of public and private financing through innovative partnerships such as the Global Financing Facility in support of Every Woman Every Child and the Power of Nutrition.
I believe we also need a robust global plan to hold all of us accountable for our policy decisions, financing, and faster progress.
Much like the Paris conference this past December forced action on a historic political agreement to tackle climate change, the world needs a “Paris moment” on early childhood development to force the kind of urgent global action and accountability commensurate with this crisis.
So today I would like to invite Ministers of Finance to a summit during our Annual Meetings here in Washington in October, where I hope we can agree to a plan that will set us on the path to end childhood stunting and promote the optimal development of young children.
Depending on the path we choose, the journey to a world where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential can be long and arduous. But the path has shortcuts. One is supporting early childhood development. So join us in this movement. It’s what every girl and boy born today deserves.