Inter-sectoral approach to Early Childhood Development
I was glad to be in the US last week, in preparation for the Clinton Global Initiative, on the occasion of a panel on inter-sectoral approaches to early childhood development, coordinated by the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings and Save the Children. The Obama administration's newly appointed focal points on early childhood education (Jacqueline Jones in the Department of Education, and Joan Lombardi in the Department of Health and Human Services) provided hopeful perspectives on the early developments of these new efforts to integrate the government's policies and programs for young children. They also underlined a recurrent theme of the discussion: the need to develop a coherent and holistic message for advocacy of political and financial support for early childhood. We need to leverage the strong scientific evidence that has been gathered in the fields of health, education and economics about the potent value of early childhood interventions.
Lombardi pointed out that from her experience, early childhood initiatives were mainly missing public financing and coordination between health, education and other sectors that touch the lives of young children. The discussion suggested that at least in the US, with the important factor of high-level support from President Obama and Secretaries Duncan and Sebellius, efforts are being made to remedy these common challenges. While of course the newly appointed representatives' work will focus on domestic issues for the time-being, Lombardi did mention the Office of Global Health in HHS, which she suggested could be a starting point for related initiatives that extend beyond US borders.
Jean-Louis Sarbib, formerly Vice President of the Human Development Network at the World Bank, and now a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Wolfensohn Center, reviewed what he saw as the highlights of Lombardi's and Jones's presentations. First, he emphasized the value of the high-level support in any effective early childhood policy, which they confirmed feeling from the President and both Secretaries. He felt particularly strongly about President Obama's choice to invest in early learning as part of the recent stimulus, emphasizing this sector as investment in our future health and economic development, rather than consumption. Finally, Sarbib suggested that we need to talk about early childhood as the period from conception to 8 years, rather than starting at birth.
The first question from the audience highlighted the fact that the discussion had focused largely on domestic arena, perhaps reflecting the reality that these inter-sectoral efforts are new to the US, and have not yet extended to our international policies. Peter Laugharn, executive director of the Firelight Foundation, asked whether this priority on early childhood, and specifically an inter-sectoral approach, would be reflected in the US's international development assistance. While there was no information provided about specific efforts being made to promote the issue within international policy, the panelists' eager support for the issue inspires hope. Further, Lombardi mentioned several times her fondness for and commitment to international work, which is evidenced by her extensive and enduring in that realm before accepting this position with HHS.
In sum, the event provided a very satisfying first discussion on the topic. The enthusiastic participation of about 40 professionals from all sides of the early childhood field (health and education; domestic and international; funders and practitioners), as well as the panelists' eloquent and action-focused interventions, lead me to believe that we will manage to raise the profile of early childhood as a valuable priority for international development aid.
Our experience through TYO in Nablus provides incontrovertible evidence that not only do early childhood programs have profound and lasting impact on children, but also that they provide access to entire families, and thereby communities. What better public diplomacy instrument could the State Department be looking for?