The Urgency of Investing in Early Childhood Development in Emergencies

2016-09-16-1474061329-5322174-MobileHealthClinic_Yemen.jpg Photo: Julien Harneis

After five years of brutal civil war, 3.7 million Syrian children -- one in three -- have only ever known life in violent conflict. Around the world, more than 16 million babies were born into conflict settings last year. These children have already witnessed more violence, experienced more stress and fear and deprivation, undergone more trauma than their little bodies ever should.

And without an end in sight, these littlest Syrians confront an uncertain future. If they are lucky -- if a political solution is found -- and the war ends, they will have long years of reconciliation and rebuilding. That's the best case scenario and one that requires a great deal of attention and investment.

Today Theirworld released a new report on the urgent need for early childhood development services for children living through emergencies and disasters. Babies and toddlers are especially vulnerable in crisis, with the highest rates of both illness and death of any age group. And beyond the well known physical dangers, young children risk psychological trauma, toxic stress, and poor mental and emotional development, with consequences that can impact all aspects of their lives for years to come.

The new report clearly points to significant evidence that comprehensive early childhood development programs can provide life saving support for these children, protecting their healthy growth and development and providing opportunities for psychological and emotional care. Moreover, the report makes it clear that investments in these early years are the bedrock on which a healthy, stable, educated and peaceful future will be built.

The report comes as the United Nations General Assembly Summit for Refugees and Migrants kicks off and just before President Obama's Leaders' Summit on Refugees tomorrow. So while the refugee crisis is receiving some much needed high-level attention, far greater focus is needed on the specific needs of the world's littlest refugees and victims of conflict and disaster in Syria and around the world.

As protracted crisis becomes the norm and the average refugee is displaced for 17 years, humanitarian assistance and the politicians who authorize it, must begin to look beyond mere survival and start providing babies, young children and their caregivers in emergencies with "Safe Spaces" that include everything a child needs to grow and thrive: access to clean water and sanitation facilities, a safe place for breastfeeding, opportunities for play and early learning support and, access to medical care and supplemental nutrition. This kind of holistic support is essential to ensuring children growing up in a conflict or disaster still have the best start in life and a chance at a healthy and happy future.

Importantly, investing in these "Safe Spaces" isn't just about protecting the health and development of individual children. It's also an investment in a society's future. Early childhood programs have been shown to be the best way to reduce inequalities and level the playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Social inequity can be a significant driver of conflict, and early childhood development support and services in conflict or fragile environments can help pave the way for better social cohesion, stability, and even lasting peace.

Further, living through conflict can normalise violence for young children, teaching them to accept and use violence more frequently. Children can also internalize prejudices and negative views of "the other side" very early in life, ingraining in the next generation enmities that fuel the existing conflict. Early childhood programs can help teach these young children about problem-solving and conflict resolution and foster critical skills including empathy, self-control, cooperation, tolerance and respect for difference.

It's a tough road ahead, for those born into disasters and conflict settings, but prioritising these investments in babies and children and their caregivers with an eye to their long-term future, can not only ensure they grow up healthy, but also help equip children with the tools to solve personal conflict and disagreements peacefully and constructively and coexist with members of other groups.

Importantly, early childhood development "Safe Spaces" can also be a place where adults from disparate groups can come together and connect over the shared experience of caring for a young child -- breaking down existing stereotypes and prejudices, putting human faces to otherwise anonymous members of another group. In Cote d'Ivoire, for example, UNICEF's Learning for Peace Programme established 21 early childhood centres, managed by groups of mothers from all different ethnic and social backgrounds. One member of the women's group reported, "The group helped me forget the war ... We're not the same people we were before. Since we're mixed, we're all together. We won't fight ... Now my kids are in safety I can work in the field and we can be at peace."

Investing in the health and development of babies and children is not just about humanitarian relief, it is about building -- out of the ashes of unimaginable suffering -- better lives, stronger and more resilient communities and an end to cycles of violence.

Is it possible to imagine a better investment?

Kolleen Bouchane is Director of Policy and Advocacy at The Global Business Coalition for Education, and Theirworld. Follow her on twitter: https://twitter.com/bouchane