Calling for Urgent Investment in the Early Years at the UN

Mari Ullmann
Aug 19 · 9 min read

Children are disproportionately represented among those fleeing from emergencies and conflict-affected contexts, and data from conflicts around the world show that being a child in a war zone is more dangerous than being an armed combatant. Young children (age 0–6) affected by conflict and forced displacement are especially vulnerable to a range of severe threats, including physical harm, psychological trauma and high levels of stress that can inhibit responsive care and healthy development.

Last month, on the margins of the UN High-Level Political Forum, a multi-stakeholder group comprised of government officials, UN agencies, civil society, and the private sector gathered at the headquarters of UNICEF in New York to call for greater investment in young children and to highlight the multiplier effect of early childhood development for sustainable development and peaceful societies. Entitled “Small Asks for Big Impact,” the event was co-hosted by the UN Missions of Bangladesh and Rwanda, UNICEF, the Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC), the Moving Minds Alliance, and the NGO Committee on Migration, with support from the Open Society Foundations.

The moderator for the event was long-time early childhood advocate Dr. Joan Lombardi, Director of Early Opportunities LLC and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009–11). Dr. Lombardi set the stage by stating, “we are here to recommit to those children and families who are the most vulnerable. Those whose lives have been affected by conflict, displacement, and natural disaster. Those who are depending on a combination of humanitarian assistance, development support and peace to fulfill the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Dr. Lombardi noted the alignment between the SDGs and the Nurturing Care Framework, which she said provides a vision for what we want for young children. “In other words, we know what to do.” However, she warned that we are falling far short for young children who are growing up in crisis.

Investing Now Will Pay Off Later

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi kicked off the presentations by welcoming attendees and framing the discussion. Referencing the estimated 75 million children under 5 years old living in conflict-affected areas, he emphasized the importance of delivering support across multiple sectors: “we need to invest more in their holistic development, not just in education, but also in health, nutrition, protection, mental health and psychosocial support, and caregiver support.” Mr. Abdi affirmed that ECD is a priority area for UNICEF, which remains committed “to work towards giving every young child the nurturing care they need.”

He also pointed out significant shortfalls in funding, which remains insufficient relative to the need and focused on a few large and protracted crises. “We know that investment in early childhood development services can yield some of the greatest public policy returns on investment — particularly for poor, marginalized or conflict-affected communities. However, government investment still tends to prioritize later periods of human development. We need to make our case stronger for investment in the early years.”

Timing Matters for Child Development

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

Next, Dr. Charles Nelson, III, Professor of Pediatrics and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, delivered the keynote presentation, drawing from decades of research on the impact of early adversity on child and brain development. He explained that while healthy experiences facilitate brain development, in contrast, adverse experiences can be “toxic” and have negative impacts on brain development. He also emphasized that timing matters: “Adverse experiences may have different effects depending on the timing and duration of their exposure.”

The effects of early adversity can also be long lasting — individual children who experience adversity early in life have an increased risk for later psychological and physical health problems. Furthermore, Dr. Nelson explained that these biological effects can cascade from one generation to the next through “intergenerational transmission.” “If you think about a child exposed to profound adversity early on that perhaps persists, that child’s offspring are at risk as well.”

Dr. Nelson’s presentation and additional resources are accessible below.

Integrating ECD Across Sectors

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

Representing the government of Rwanda, the high-level panel discussion began with Dr. Anita Asiimwe, Coordinator of the country’s National ECD Programme. Dr. Asiimwe shared that in working toward Rwanda’s vision for 2050, the Ministry of Econocmic Planning and Finance has identified human capital development as the number one future driver of growth for the nation. “And we cannont speak of human capital development without speaking about the early years of life.”

Dr. Asiimwe’s department is responsible for coordinating all interventions that have anything to do with children from the moment of conception until six years of age. She emphasized how this integrated approach enables her agency to achieve its goals as well as contribute to the SDGs: “That way we have early childhood development being owned by various sectors and players, all the way from national level and very importantly at the village level.” Specifically, she outlined five key sectors that are integrated through Rwanda’s ECD programme: health, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, child protection, and parental support for early stimulation and early learning.

Affirming a Child’s Right to Survive and Thrive

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

The next panelist, Mr. Md. Sherajul Islam, Vice Minister of Health and Family Welfare for Bangladesh, opened his remarks by affirming ECD as critical for upholding the right of the child to survive and thrive, with benefits that last a lifetime.

Mr. Islam highlighted work by the Government of Bangladesh, with the help of development partners such as UNICEF, to implement screening of all children under 5 through growth monitoring and evaluation, management of severe and acute malnutrition, and counseling of caregivers on infant and young child feeding. He shared that his government has undertaken a number of integrated initiatives for the early childhood population from 0 to 3 years old, as well as expectant mothers, and has been campaigning to increase awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding. He also acknowledged the considerable challenges faced by the government as well as host communities in supporting displaced populations in Cox’s Bazar, including with early childhood development.

Mr. Islam noted Bangladesh’s progress in building the Culture of Peace. However, he recognized that obstacles remain for young children’s development, such as gaps in education and nutrition services, knowledge gaps among caregivers, gender inequalities, climate change, and a lack of support for children with disabilities. The Vice Minister appealed for a multi-sectoral approach, globally and regionally — and at the intersection of humanitarian, development, and peace — to address the crisis of young children stripped of their right to development.

Contributing to Peaceful Societies

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

Dr. Rima Salah, Chair of ECPC and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, prefaced her remarks by pointing out that more children than ever before are now living in conflict zones. “We know that when protective systems are disrupted due to conflict and displacement … it is really the family, the parents, that emerge to build a protective environment for their children.” But exposure to instability and stress challenge parents’ ability to provide the nurturing care their children need.

Dr. Salah noted that to date investment in the early years as a pathway to peace has been insufficient, and that the discourse on peacebuilding has failed to acknowledge the role of the families and parents “who toil every day to anchor peace in their homes and communities.”

“I’ve heard many mothers — from Ireland and Northern Ireland, from Lebanon to Turkey, from Uganda to Cote d’Ivoire — who said their lives and their childrens’ lives had changed. They said that they became more aware of the importance of ECD, and their families became more harmonious and peaceful.”

Dr. Salah closed her presentation with a rousing call to strengthen advocacy for universal access to early childhood development, emphasizing the urgent need for increased investment in programs for families and young children living in situations of crisis and displacement. “We have powerful tools in our hands, and the time is now. Let us join the movement!”

Finding Home in a New Country

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

The last speaker of the day was Ms. Nargis Bigzad, who was born in Afghanistan and lived in Russia and Pakistan during the Russian invasion and the Taliban years, respectively. Ms. Bigzad drove home the many challenges of raising a child as a single mother with refugee status, and the incredible resilience required to overcome them.

Through a conversation with Dr. Lombardi, Ms. Bigzad shared the story of her journey and her personal experiences of gender inequality, displacement, and depression. When her arranged marriage to an abusive husband failed, she says she was forced to become both a mother and father to her 6-day-old son, Rehan.

From there, the best interests of her young son drove her decisions. She took up work with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for two years so she could obtain a special visa that enabled her to move to the United States. Upon arrival, even with support from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), she encountered more challenges. She struggled to afford basic housing and to support her son. Finding adequate child care while she worked was among her chief concerns, as well as being able to spend more time with her son after work.

After moving from state to state, becoming homeless, and living in a shelter, Ms. Nargis was offered a position in the marketing department of the IRC in New York City, where she still works today. “I love my job, I am a monthly contributor, and I love what I do.” She expressed pride in her son’s accomplishments: he speaks English, has became a very good student, and recently completed elementary school. Finally, the pair looks forward to becoming U.S. citizens soon, and no longer carrying refugee status. “This country will be our second home.”

Photo credit: Erica Wong/UNICEF

Dr. Lombardi wrapped up the event by facilitating a question-and-answer session with audience members, including NGO representatives and UN Member State delegates. The discussion ranged from developing inclusive programs for young children with disabilities and their parents, and harnessing the science of child development to design programs for older children and adolescents.

In closing, Dr. Lombardi left participants with the message to be persistent in working for change, despite the challenges: “We have to use every opportunity to renew our commitment to young children and families in crisis. We have to believe in our hearts that every one of us can make a difference. More than ever, we have to call for peace and harmony around the world, so children can thrive.”

Additional Resources

More on the work of Dr. Charles Nelson:

From the Moving Minds Alliance:

From the Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC):

From UNICEF:

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