The Child From Mozambique

Last month, I met a very poor, teenage mother in a slum outside Maputo, the capital of Mozambique (per capita income: less than two dollars a day). She was carrying a baby who she had given birth to a few weeks before -- inside of her house, with no medical assistance. Of course, the child has no birth certificate, and his mother is unlikely to try to get one -- she cannot afford the cost of the bus ride to a registration center. Result: her son is pretty much condemned to a life of poverty. He will never have a property title, be part of a contract, hold a license, join a union, register in college, or vote in an election. Technically, he will not exist. He won't be alone: it is estimated that two in every three African children do not exist either. They also have no birth certificate.

How come something so apparently trivial and so early -- like not having a piece of paper that says who you are -- can hurt you so badly and so permanently? Well, it turns out that your chances to succeed in life are quickly spoiled by things that can happen to you long before you arrive in a school, if you ever do. And even if those things don't happen, it is still not certain that you will make it. Crazy, isn't it? Welcome to the drama, the frustration, the promise, and the beauty of early childhood development.

Nutrition is the best example of how this works. We do not know exactly for how long an infant needs to be undernourished before she starts to lose cognitive capacity (some scientists say that a month is enough). What we know for sure is that a lack of iodine or iron, and sheer stunting, before the age of two will probably shave some 10 points off your IQ -- forever. (Remember, the average person's IQ is only 100). With that kind of intellectual handicap, the odds are that you will not get a good job, ever. Your luck will be all but sealed from the beginning, in slow-motion, right in front of the eyes of parents, governments and donors. In fact, malnourishment is easy to detect: if a baby does not grow at least 24 centimeters in her first 12 months, you know right there and then that there is a problem -- regardless of race, family history or geographic location. What is less obvious is that more food may still not solve your nutritional problem. If your child has no potable water, sanitation, hygiene, or vaccinations, she is bound to lose nutrients anyway.

The point is that early childhood development is an all-or-nothing business. Even with good nutrition, the construction of the brain -- the computer of the future worker, if you will -- is easily derailed. The speed at which cells connect with each other in the brain -- its "plasticity" in the technical lingo -- peaks during your first year of life. (It peaks at 700 connections per second, if you want to know). After that, it begins to slow down. So, if the process is interrupted or delayed by external "stresses"-- things like hunger, disease, neglect, violence, or orphan-hood -- during your first year, you miss the most trainable moment of your existence. It will take a lot of money and a lot of luck to catch up later. (If you want to hear this from one of the world's leading experts, you can view a recent lecture by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.)

That explains the enormous value of pre-school education -- and the huge disadvantage in missing it. By the time a child gets to first grade -- usually by the age of five -- much of her cognitive, motor, sensory and social skills are on a difficult-to-change trajectory. That is why, when you compare two children arriving for their very first day of class, one that has been exposed to systematic, continuous and positive stimulation, and one that has not, the difference between their learning abilities is the transport equivalent to the difference between a car and a horse. Mind you, we are not talking about "formal" pre-school education. Even if it is your father reading to you every night, the local shopkeeper letting you count the candies, or your community's priest telling you about good behavior, it is early, regular training in reasoning and communication that matters.

Now the child is in school. How soon can we know whether she'll make it or not? Sadly, very soon. If by the end of second grade, she cannot read at least 60 words per minute, it is almost certain that she will not finish sixth grade on time -- in turn a sure-shot predictor of whether she will ever go to college. What's so magic about reading 60 words per minute when you are a seven-year old? At slower reading speed you lose the meaning of the sentence. In other words, if you can't read that fast, you cannot learn. By some estimates, only one in 10 second-graders at public schools in Latin-America can pass the 60 words per minute test. The other nine are heading for permanent academic failure. (Want to see the trauma of real second-graders trying to read, and being unable to? There is a sobering video-documentary on Peru.)

Remember, none of these services -- birth certificates, nutrition, environmental stimuli, reading skills, and so on -- is by itself sufficient. You need all of them. It is the combination that gives you a chance in life. And the timing of the combination is critical -- there is a point beyond which the problem can be accommodated but not solved, no matter how much money you throw at it. Which brings us back to that baby in the Mozambican slum. Having no birth certificate may, after all, be the least of his problems. There will be plenty of hurdles that he will not be able to jump. You can safely bet that he will be one more case of wasted human opportunity. But it surely would have been nice to have a record of him -- before he disappears in anonymity.