The silent crisis of care and learning affecting young children and their families
More than a year into the pandemic the COVID-19 crisis continues to dominate the headlines. The world faces an unequal recovery. While COVID-19 vaccination has allowed some countries to begin to reopen and refocus on recovery, many other countries face new restrictions from further waves of the virus, as well as ongoing challenges to respond to new outbreaks and adequately resource and deliver COVID-19 vaccination, response and recovery.
The negative impacts from the pandemic continue to affect children around the world. The social and economic consequences of COVID-19 risk reversing many of the gains made on children’s rights during this century in critical areas such as health, learning, child protection and child poverty.
The unique nature of the pandemic created a crisis of care and learning where parents became first-line responders for their children’s survival, care and learning, addressing the gap in services no longer available (e.g. essential health and nutrition services, pre-school and childcare). Parents and caregivers are struggling to provide nurturing care for their young children; keep them safe, healthy and well nourished; address their questions and anxieties about the pandemic; and engage them in developmentally appropriate learning activities at home. This places a burden on all families, especially the poor and marginalised.
This presents long-term risks for young children’s development and future prospects. The early years are critical for brain development, laying the foundation for life-long learning, health and well-being. These risks affect not just children themselves, but also the future of their families, communities and economies, possibly for decades. Timely support to young children and their families and greater, more equitable and efficient investments in early childhood development (ECD) are more urgent than ever.
UNICEF and partners are doubling down on protecting ECD investments, and improving the planning, costing and prioritization of critical services for young children and their families.
While there is increasing recognition of the social and economic return from investing in ECD, governments are facing difficult financial decisions to provide social services in the face of greater demand and less resources, in a still changing delivery environment.
The impact of falling domestic revenue and the emerging debt crisis is impacting public budgets. A UNESCO, UNICEF and World Bank survey of 149 ministries of education found one in five reported cuts to education. UNICEF’s Social Spending Monitor found that three quarters of surveyed countries planned to cut public expenditure between 2020 and 2021.
This is a particular concern for ECD, where COVID-19 may exacerbate existing funding shortfalls. A recent UNICEF study, Quantifying Heckman in Eastern and Southern Africa, found low investment in health and education services for children aged 0-6 years in 2019, despite the extensive research showing higher returns on investments in the early years of life. Concerningly, the study projected that ECD spending in 2020 and 2021 would be lower than in 2019 due to COVID-19-related falls in domestic revenue.
Policy makers must pivot to reflect these new challenges and emerging opportunities and entry points. UNICEF is working with governments and partners to protect and promote ECD funding in the COVID-19 context, through the following interconnected key actions:
1. Identify and cost priority ECD services, for a timely response to emerging opportunities or challenges to ECD resourcing.
Being pre-prepared with details on priority ECD services is particularly important for government prioritization and budgeting, given the need for rapid decisions to develop COVID-19 support mechanisms, adjust existing budgets or find savings due to revenue falls or COVID-19 response needs.
Lists of priority services and activities will depend on country context, policies and goals, but any priority list will be more practical and influential if supported by clear accurate information on the costs and cost-effectiveness of different investments, as well as evidence on the social and economic return from investing in the early years. Costing can also be used to reflect changes to programmes from the COVID-19 delivery context where adaptation is required or where new efficiencies are possible, for example by using digital technology and telehealth services to provide parents with information and support. Costed priority ECD interventions can be more easily promoted for inclusion in COVID-19 response or recovery plans, or protected where possible from budget cuts.
For example, in Croatia, UNICEF has worked with the government to cost universal access to kindergarten before the pandemic. These data and models were used to advocate for the inclusion of this priority activity in the COVID-19 recovery response. With this timely intervention, an estimated additional $500 million USD was secured to expand kindergarten access from 2021 – 2026 as part of the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility. UNICEF continues to work with the government of Croatia to develop more accurate and more detailed costings to both improve the efficiency of budgeting and better understand the costs for inclusion of marginalised children. This work will help the government maximise the impact of its resources for kindergarten access under the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.
2. Identify new opportunities for ECD in COVID-19 support packages and COVID-19 recovery investments
There may be new entry points through sector responses to the COVID-19 crisis. While many social services have been disrupted or experienced funding cuts in the pandemic, there have also been some benefits from increased attention and resources provided as part of country COVID-19 emergency responses, such as universal benefits for young children and publicly supported childcare. Such opportunities for temporary financing can then be further pursued as opportunities to demonstrate impact and build support for longer term investments as part of the COVID-19 recovery.
Responding to such opportunities requires careful monitoring of the specific COVID situation and governments’ policy responses in order to integrate timely support to young children and their families. It is important to be aware of the different potential mechanisms to support nurturing care through sector programmes. For example, social protection, a critical element of most COVID-19 responses, can offer a mechanism to support parents in the provision of nurturing care to their young children at home, as illustrated by the Government of Burundi’s Merankabandi Social Safety Nets programme. This cash transfer programme, a collaboration with the World Bank and UNICEF, incorporates additional activities to support parents in responsive care and early learning, with tools to encourage active involvement of fathers and support timely birth registration.
This approach was applied in Tajikistan, where nurturing care related interventions were integrated into the government’s programme to help low-income families deal with the economic impacts of COVID-19. Parents enrolled in the Tajikistan Emergency COVID-19 project, delivered in collaboration with the World Bank and UNICEF, received a one-time cash payment as well as messages and resources on good nutrition and parenting practices that help children to stay healthy and develop to their full potential during these difficult times.
Similar opportunities to support governments’ ECD priorities should also be sought in collaboration with partners, the private sector and other innovative financing mechanisms. The previous example of Croatia illustrated how ECD investments can be incorporated in a COVID-19 recovery package supported by partners.
3. Analyse budget expenditure to understand how the crisis is affecting ECD-related investments.
As ECD investments are typically spread across multiple sectors and programmes, it can be hard to understand the full picture of ECD funding. For this reason, UNICEF advocates monitoring government budgets to identify and track ECD funding and spending to identify gaps and barriers to achieving governments’ priority policy goals. This becomes even more important given the disruption from COVID-19.
Budget monitoring and analysis can help to identify new emerging challenges, opportunities, risks or gaps arising from the varied impact of the COVID-19 crisis across different sectors, as well as support efforts to increase the efficiency and impact of available funding. It can show which ECD priorities have been affected by cuts or disruption and where new programmes may have complimentary goals, identifying opportunities to improve efficiency and impact. This includes identifying ways to reduce duplication and strengthen coordination across multi-sector ECD programmes, addressing gaps in programme design that risk excluding support for young children and parenting, and identifying programmes where implementation has been constrained by the COVID-19 delivery context where adaptation is required.
In Argentina, UNICEF used the existing system of quarterly national budget reports to track COVID-19 budget allocations and to follow budget responses for early childhood during the crisis, building on their long engagement with the Ministry of Finance. A Children and Adolescents Special Chapter in the 2021 Budget identified specific ECD budget lines and resource allocation. With clear information on ECD budgets, supported by timely updates on impacts and risks, the government was able to prioritise critical ECD investments, including increased resources for kindergartens and food security support for vulnerable families and children.
Working together to promote adequate, efficient, and equitable financing of care and learning support to young children and their families in the response to, and recovery from, COVID-19
The longer the pandemic continues, the greater the risk to young children’s development and future prospects, and the greater the pressure on families. Strong commitment and timely action are required from national governments, the international community, civil society and the private sector.
The investment case is clear, our shared challenge is to make sure that ECD is considered as a central part of financing responses in the COVID-19 context.
UNICEF will continue working with governments and partners to prioritise investments in young children as a keystone of an inclusive and sustainable recovery from the pandemic.
[i] With thanks to UNICEF colleagues who shared their experiences and supported the development of this blog, including Erinna Dia, Carolina Aulicino, Ivana Cosic, Maya Elliott, Umeda Fazylova, Djurdjica Ivkovic, Bob Muchabaiwa, Nolasque Ndikumana and Paul Marie Petroch.