Kathmandu Statement spells out principles championing early childhood care and education
An estimated 250 million children younger than 5 in low and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their potential due to stunting, poverty and disadvantage. That statistic highlights a shocking dereliction of duty owed to the most vulnerable children – yet experience has shown that assigning blame is as counterproductive as it is divisive. At heart, this is a collective responsibility requiring coordinated action.
That shared sense of urgency led to the 3rd Asia-Pacific Regional Policy Forum on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and 2018 Asia-Pacific Regional Early Childhood Development (ECD) Conference held in Kathmandu on 5 to 7 June, 2018. ‘It is our collective responsibility to develop and nurture the children from the earliest age possible,’ Mr Shigeru Aoyagi, Director of UNESCO Bangkok, the Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau of Education, said in his closing remarks. ‘Especially, the ministry of education [in each country] needs to play an active role in bringing different stakeholders together to promote a multi-sectoral approach to implementing and monitoring quality ECCE programmes from birth to the age of 8.’
That priority is best encapsulated in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 4.2, which states: ‘By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.’ That emphasis, and particularly Target 4.2.1, which focuses on the welfare of children under 5, stems from the recognition that brain development begins at birth, laying the foundations for lifelong learning and well-being long before the first day of primary school.
The critical challenge is to translate high-minded forums and conferences into concrete action on the ground – an aspiration summed up in the event’s subtitle ‘Taking SDG 4.2 from Policy to Action’. Bringing together high-level officials from 28 countries across the Asia-Pacific, the policy forum pooled expertise to establish a regional action plan that then can be adapted to each sub-region’s unique challenges and circumstances. To that end, participants tentatively adopted the draft Kathmandu Statement for Action that spells out five priority areas: 1) Financing, 2) ECCE in education sector planning, 3) Equity in access for all, 4) Quality improvement and 5) Monitoring 4.2 indicators. Those goals in turn build upon the Putrajaya Declaration action plan agreed to in Malaysia in 2016.
The five priorities reflect an understanding that while each country has its own challenges to face, the general action plan supports efforts that are common to all. Unsurprisingly, one shared challenge is financing early care and development. ‘While we are in the phase of estimating the budget to set up the ECD facilities, the conference gave an opportunity to broaden our ideas and develop more clarity from the experiences of other countries who have a good track record,’ said Mr David Collins, Minister of Education for Kiribati, on the sidelines of the event. ‘I realize that Kiribati is headed in the right direction but I need to speed up the process as a minister. I will share the discussions of the forum with the technical people in my team and motivate them to do better.’
Accompanying the sense of challenges that still remain, there was also a common sentiment that ECCE and ECD progress has reached a milestone, not least because of increased awareness about the importance of early cognitive, physical and emotional development. The Maldives provides a powerful example of how much can be achieved in a short period of time. ‘In Maldives, we have ensured 100-per-cent access to early childhood care and education. We have had ECCE-focused policies since 2016 in place,’ said Mr Ahmed Shafeeu, Minister of State for Education for the Maldives. ‘We have integrated this programme in primary school, which facilitates teachers to get the right kind of support.’ Those primary-trained teachers then are able to provide training to ECD teachers and facilitators.
The case studies provided by national programmes also shed light on the importance of the policy framework. Priority three of the Kathmandu Statement addresses another core principle in education – equity – which, as SDG Target 4.5, demonstrates the interdependence of the global education goals. Access to education remains not just a basic human rights issue, but also a key determinant of broader social equality. Research has shown that in 52 low and middle-income countries between 2010 and 2015, an average of about two children aged 3 or 4 from the poorest fifth of households attended organized learning for every 10 children from the richest fifth.
Such disparity entrenches inequality, requiring urgent action in developing countries. In some cases, that action has indeed been forthcoming. In Cambodia, for example, enrollment rates at the early childhood level has increased to 68 per cent in 2017 and 2018 from 20 per cent only 10 years ago. ‘If you invest in early childhood, you can improve quality learning. This is important learning for Cambodia, which faces repetition and drop-outs in schools,’ said Mr Prak Kosal, Director of the Department of Early Childhood Education, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. Mr Kosal also has an observation that reflects the larger picture: ‘If you invest in ECD, you invest in society as a whole.’
Similarly, the Maldives experience – and motivation to engage in the policy forum – is rooted in another priority, that of quality education. The country has rapidly expanded early childhood services, but there is a continued recognition that more than access is essential. ‘Every specific country in the Asia-Pacific has specific capacities,’ Mr Shafeeu said. ‘Taking the practices from other countries, we can start implementing them. We are now setting the standards higher for the ECD teachers and for this we also need to train them and develop their capacities and improve the ECD.’
The Ministries of Education in each country, such as that represented by Mr Shafeeu, must drive programmes within their national education and pre-education systems, but there is a recognition that comprehensive, equitable early childhood care, education and development depends on a broad multi-sectoral effort. ‘We need partners to turn today’s commitments into tomorrow’s reality,’ Mr Aoyagi said. ‘So let us show that the Asia-Pacific is the most progressive and advanced region in the world when it comes to 4.2 and to become a global leader in the cause for inclusive, quality ECCE.’
By Jeremy Walden-Schertz and Nirjana Sharma
Photos by Niroj Shreshta / Nirjana Sharma