The extraordinary progress that China has made in human development by lifting millions of people out of poverty, despite having the largest population of 1.4 billion, is no less than a miracle. The Chinese top-tier leadership attaches great importance to its human resource development. In the words of China’s former vice-premier Mme Liu Yandong: “investment in early childhood development is a human capital investment with the highest return”. I witnessed their commitment to ‘put children first’ being translated into policies during my recent visit to China’s southwestern province Guizhou.
The Chinese government recognises that having a well-educated and well-nourished population is a requisite to innovation and achieving this gives priority to investing in early childhood development to eliminate poverty. Children’s development is an important part of a country’s socioeconomic development and progress. Promoting children’s development is of strategic importance to improving China’s comprehensive quality and making it a human resources-powerful country.
Early childhood education (ECE) in rural areas, especially in poverty-stricken regions, has been prioritised to increase the national enrolment rate. The Chinese model of village early education centres has made significant progress in popularising pre-school education in the country’s middle and western rural areas and, in particular, to reach the bottom 20 percent of children who are the most underprivileged.
These village early education centres abide by the principles of operational simplicity, reasonable cost, accessible service and guaranteed quality. As is the case in Pakistan, the shortage of qualified pre-school teachers is a prominent problem in ECE development in China as well. These village early education centres solved this problem by recruiting volunteer pre-schoolteachers who teach full-time in exchange for monthly living and transportation subsidies. In addition, the volunteers regularly attend various training courses held by the country’s education bureaus to continually improve their work skills.
Nutrition is the main component of early childhood development interventions and China has demonstrated substantial experience in nutritional supplementation for poor families and children. The State Council has promulgated the National Programme for Child Development in China. This initiative proposes major objectives, strategies and measures with regard to children’s health, education, legal protection and the environment and gives a state umbrella to children.
It has, therefore, enabled remarkable improvements in the environment and the conditions necessary for the survival, protection and development of children. Under this state-sponsored programme, the health and nutrition of children steadily improved and the under-five infant mortality rates were significantly reduced. It provides orphans, children from poverty-stricken families, disabled children, street children and other disadvantaged children more care and assistance to ensure their holistic development.
China is serious and systematic about its human resource development, which starts at the child’s birth. They have unfolded a clear roadmap for early childhood development provisions, such as the One Village, One Preprimary by 2020 initiative, to reach the marginalised population that lives in poverty in the remote rural areas. Through this political will and extensive support, researchers in China are implementing and evaluating a diverse range of early childhood development models. The impact evaluations of various models show that parenting support and community-based interventions have the potential to reach young children who are at risk and promote child development.
The models include the China Rural Education and Child Health (China REACH) programme – the first integrated early childhood education programme in Gansu. This initiative includes nutrition and parenting interventions, arbitrarily controlled trials and follow-up assessments alongside maternal and child health check services and early childhood development screening. Similarly the One Sky Project in Henan reaches the most number of children who are risk in their formative years by training adult caregivers on how to offer the kind of consistent nurturing interaction that all children need and to let them know that their lives matter.
The country with global development ambitions under its One Belt One Road initiative keeps “investment in the human capital” and “putting children first” as its guiding principles. The energy and transportation infrastructure projects that come under CPEC should be expanded to encompass Chinese cooperation. This can be done by fostering Pakistan’s social infrastructure and adopting Chinese models of ECD interventions by associating finances to it.
Since almost 40 percent of Pakistan’s children under five are underweight and 50 percent are stunted – with wide disparities between children from poorer and well-to-do households – investing in our children and future human resources could only be more appropriate now than ever. Most health education and nutrition departments work in isolation, ignoring the benefits of an integrated approach to early child development in Pakistan. There is no state umbrella to look after disadvantaged children between the ages of three and five, which is a critical age for school readiness.
It is time that we realise that investing in early child development is an effective means to eliminate poverty from Pakistan and a key pathway to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In such a situation, an ECD emergency has to be declared and Pakistan needs to commit now to focus on children who are below the age of six by adopting successful Chinese models and strong political commitment to implement policy actions. A legal framework has to be prepared for the state coverage of this age group. An early years’ commission has to be set up to leverage national and provincial governments to redirect policies to focus on children in the pre-primary age group. Social and private sector innovative models should be studied, evaluated, replicated and patronised under the government framework to reduce the fiscal burden on the already underfunded primary education setup.
To prevent the intergenerational transmission of poverty, we must provide access to pre-school education for all disadvantaged children, especially those at the lowest 20 percent of income quintiles. It is only in this way that we can foster their upward mobility and pave the way for sustained socioeconomic development to ultimately transform Pakistan into a knowledge economy.
The writer is the president of the Parwaan National Center of Excellence on Early Childhood Care and Education.