By Corinne Mazzeo, ChildFund Health and Nutrition Advisor
The 5th Birthday and Beyond campaign recognizes the importance of investing in the first five years of life to ensure that children survive and thrive well beyond their fifth birthday. ChildFund is one of more than 100 nonprofit organizations, businesses and philanthropic groups participating in this effort.
The period from conception to 5 years is a critical time in human development. Starting even before a child is born, the brain is developing. In fact, the brain is developing most rapidly — and is most vulnerable — during these first few years of life.
Before a child turns 3, his or her brain is 2.5 times as active as the average adult brain, making more than 700 new synapses (connections between nerve cells that transmit information) each second. This defines a child’s health and developmental trajectory and determines a great deal of his or her future.
This is why investing in programs that target infants and young children — the age group from conception to 5 years — is so important. Children aren’t the only ones who benefit; so do their families and society as a whole. For every dollar invested in early childhood development, there is a return of between $4 and $17, which contributes to a healthier and more peaceful society. Also, according to the World Bank, high-quality services for infants and young children promote gender and socioeconomic equality.
When considering how to design high-quality services for this age group, it is important to recognize that all aspects of a young child’s life are interconnected. Their physical health depends on good nutrition, and their home lives strongly influence their emotional well-being.
Let’s look at nutrition and brain development. If a baby is undernourished, she can’t learn as well as she should, she can’t fully interact with her peers, and she can’t explore. The link between nutrition and physical growth may seem obvious — how often do we tell our kids, “Eat your vegetables so you will be strong” — but nutrition is also essential for brain development. Just as the body needs nourishment to grow and develop, so does the brain.
In recent years, we have learned more about brain development, and it is clear that children need more than just good nutrition to reach their full physical and cognitive potential.
Another critical piece is stimulation, which is necessary to build and strengthen the brain’s architecture. Children’s early experiences with caregivers and their environment have a direct impact on their physical and mental health throughout their lives. Love, affection, interaction and play — along with fulfilled health and nutritional needs — create the attachment that stimulates healthy growth and development.
As a result, leaders around the world — including ChildFund — are increasingly focused on the integration of nutrition and stimulation. A growing body of research suggests that when these two areas of intervention are combined, the whole is greater than the two parts. An infant benefits more than if the interventions are delivered separately. So, what does this look like in real life for a mother and her baby?
One example is that well-baby visits address the interconnected needs of parent and child. Usually, when a mother brings her baby to a clinic for growth monitoring, she receives education and counseling on infant feeding practices (and, ideally, about her own nutrition as well). But this meeting can also be an opportunity to discuss the importance of stimulation to facilitate the baby’s brain development.
For example, a health worker can encourage the mother to actively engage with her baby and talk to him during mealtimes. This simple message builds upon the existing counseling about nutrition and can help reinforce the importance of responsive caregiving. When the mother is empowered to interact with her child this way, the baby’s cognitive development improves — and so do his chances for a brighter future.
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund International writer
On Earth Day and every day, ChildFund approaches its work with one overall mission in mind: helping communities become self-sufficient. That’s why we work with local partner organizations and provide training to community members wherever we go — so they’ll be able to succeed over the long term, allowing ChildFund to assist others in need.
In northern Ecuador’s Pichincha province, 200 families need a helping hand. ChildFund’s goal is to help them start and improve fruit and vegetable gardens, a program that will not only feed children but also set their families on the path to self-sufficiency. This Fund a Project, started in February, will provide vegetable and fruit seedlings, agricultural supplies and educational workshops. Our goal is to have 200 gardens in the region by August, which will directly help 750 children and 500 youth.
This is where your help comes in; our goal is to raise $42,600 by August. Children in this region of Ecuador sometimes suffer from undernutrition, and families often don’t make enough income to cover basic needs. A thriving home garden will provide families with a diverse supply of vegetables and fruit — instead of just corn, the most common regional crop — and give them the chance to sell the excess crops, increasing the family’s income by an estimated 30 percent.
With greater income, children will have more educational opportunities, and parents will be able to provide the basics: health care, clothing and bedding. In northern Ecuador, a garden represents hope and independence.
Will you help fund this project?
By Aydelfe M. Salvadora and Dirce Sarmento, ChildFund Timor-Leste
Highly nutritious food is often unavailable in Timor-Leste. Many children are malnourished because they don’t have a proper mix of vegetables and protein, but a ChildFund home-gardening program, begun in 2012, is helping improve nutrition and provide needed income for families.
Irene, the eldest daughter of Rosalia and Felipe, started a garden in the backyard of her parents’ small farming compound located in the sub-district of Tilomar. Like others in this community, Irene’s family depends on farming for their livelihood, yet their earnings are meager and uneven.
Irene, who is married with a child of her own, recognized the opportunity for growing nutritious food and helping her parents achieve more steady income. She invited her friends, Felicidade and Guillermhina, to join in the backyard garden project and also share in the benefits.
Before they started the garden, Irene and her two friends received training in farming techniques through Graca, ChildFund’s local partner, with funding from ChildFund Australia and AusAID’s Maternal and Child Health project. The women received tools and seeds for bok choy, kangkung (a type of spinach), eggplant and tomatoes.
Irene and her husband shuttle between her parents’ home and his home in another district, which makes it difficult for Irene to tend the approximately 300-square-foot garden all the time, so her mother, Rosalia, also helps the other two women.
Last year, the women harvested twice, generating income of US$110 that was shared among them. Irene and her friends now have money for family essentials and a bit left over to buy seeds for the next growing season.
With Irene’s help, her parents now earn $20 monthly from the combined harvests of the home garden and the farm. Sometimes, Rosalia and Felipe also sell chickens raised in their backyard. This income is augmented when bananas are available; the family cooks pisang goreng (banana fritters) and offers them for sale to neighbors.
Without the garden, notes Felipe, the family would not be able to afford extra household items. He and his wife can buy food items like rice, as well as shoes and clothes for their 3-year-old grandchild.
Reflecting on their first year of gardening, the friends noted that their main challenge was access to water. During the dry season, the women had to take a brief break from gardening, and even during the rainy season, they have to fetch additional water for their plants from the neighboring aldeia (village), which is approximately 2 kilometers away.
And, yet, the garden thrived. The division of labor is fair, Rosalia says, and the gardeners look forward to this year’s first growing cycle, which began this month and runs through March.
Guest post by Sara Hommel
Sara Hommel prepared this blog last week as she concluded her tenure as associate director of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at The Brookings Institution, where she led the center’s work on early child development.
The first five years of life set the physical and mental pathways of the child, leading to positive or negative development for a lifetime. For children to positively develop in the early years, they must receive quality nutrition, healthcare, protection and cognitive stimulation. Children living in poverty often lack access to quality services to meet those basic needs. Organizations such as ChildFund seek to fill the gap for impoverished children, providing them with quality early care and education, nutrition and access to healthcare.
Early Child Development (ECD) is the foundation of human development, setting the basis for later success in education and adult employment. Everything that is necessary for children to physically and mentally develop — to be able to start school and perform well in school (and stay in school longer) — falls under the ECD umbrella. The final outcome of effective ECD, in terms of long-term human development, is educational attainment that allows for positive transition into the workforce, and the ability to function in the workforce to financially support oneself and one’s family. In this regard, the end result of effective ECD is the prevention of, or the ending of, poverty.
The human development cycle, with a foundation in early childhood, can be illustrated with a simple equation:
By providing impoverished children with the tools necessary for positive physical and mental development, early childhood programs help children get the right start in life, preparing them to start school with the ability to perform well and stay in school longer. Children who participate in ECD programs do better in school, attain higher levels of education, are less likely to become involved in crime and are more likely to be employed as adults.
Quality services in early childhood that are followed by quality education and health opportunities in the primary and secondary school years, prepare children for a lifetime of positive development and help stop the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
by Anne Lynam Goddard, ChildFund President and CEO
I’ve often said that childhood is a one-time opportunity.
It was heartening to find strong support for this concept at the “Partnering to Reduce Child Undernutrition” session held during the MDG Summit this week in New York. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton and Michaél Martin, T.D., Ireland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, co-hosted the event, which spotlighted the critical 1,000-day nutrition window that starts with a mother’s pregnancy and continues until the child is 2 years old.
Leaders from governments, international organizations, civil society organizations and the private sector emphasized that undernutrition for children under age 2 causes physiological and mental limitations that can never be made up.
At this meeting, two objectives emerged:
1) Call attention to the 1,000-day nutrition window that ensures a healthier and more prosperous future for children.
2) Gain multilateral support for alleviating child hunger and undernutrition over the next 1,000 days.
Foreign Minister Martin spoke movingly of Ireland’s history of famine. Following a 2008 study on hunger by Ireland’s Concern Worldwide, Germany’s Welthungerhilfe and the U.S.-based International Food Policy Research Institute, Ireland has committed 20 percent of Irish aid to reducing global hunger.
Burden of Knowledge
As Josette Sheeran, World Food Programme executive director, noted, “Once you have the burden of knowledge, you have to do something about it.”
Secretary of State Clinton — reiterating the U.S. government’s support for country “ownership” — pointed out that food security projects come and go. Thus, it’s necessary to build capacity in countries so they are able sustain efforts over time.
In our work with communities around the world, ChildFund emphasizes nutrition as a key developmental factor for healthy and secure infants. Two years ago ChildFund signed on to the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) framework for supporting sustainable nutrition initiatives in countries with high malnutrition. The SUN Roadmap outlines a short list of actionable priorities to improve infant and child nutrition, which now has the support of the 1,000 days initiative.
Many basic things can be done to alleviate undernutrition such as fortifying foods, making vitamins A and E available to children and improving agricultural practices. We heard encouraging reports from Brazil, Ghana and Malawi — all have made great strides in reducing malnutrition in their countries. It’s essential to share these success stories and lessons learned.
On the corporate side, the Coca-Cola Co. and the Nike Foundation are two prominent supporters of improved nutrition for children. Coke has developed a new fortified nutrition drink that has been used with success in the Philippines.
Nike is committed to supporting efforts that lead to healthy adolescent girls. Foundation President Maria Eitel noted that in the U.S. we tell young girls that if they try, they can be anything they want to be. But if we tell that to young girls in developing nations, “it’s a lie,” she said. There are many hurdles in their way.
Ensuring good neonatal and child nutrition is one of the first steps toward breaking down the obstacles that limit children’s potential.
For the 1,000 days initiative to succeed, three components are essential:
On Tuesday, we certainly saw political will. The heads of Unicef, World Health Organization, World Food Programme, the U.N. Secretary-General, foreign ministers and ministers of finance were present — and we had strong representation from the private sector and development organizations. We can check that box.
The matter of resources is not so clear. Certainly Ireland has made a firm commitment, but a lot more people and organizations will have to step up to the plate.
Also unclear is the structure of the movement going forward. Specifics are currently lacking. To maximize this opportunity we need to build momentum over the next 1,000 days to brand the initiative and draw more supporters. Additional meetings are planned this week to firm up commitments from various participants in the MDG Summit, and a follow-up meeting has been set for June 2011.
We all share in the “burden of knowledge” that inadequate nutrition for children under the age of 2 creates deficiencies that can never be overcome.
For each child, we have a one-time shot at getting it right.