Investing in Malawi’s Children to Achieve MDGs
By George Mwika Kayange
CRIDOC Founding Director
On a boiling Sunday afternoon, as I jostle for a minibus to take me back to my neighbourhood in Lilongwe, I unexpectedly see a group of about 20 women walking past the minibus stage in Lilongwe Old Town. My mind suddenly switches to the scene. A few peculiarities catch my interest in a jiffy.
The first is the utter silence among these women, in spite of strolling in a cluster. These sombre-looking women are led by an elderly woman in her 60s who is carrying a hoe. She is flanked by another woman carrying what looks like a basket at a distance, wrapped up in white cloth.
Apparently noticing the surprise that is painted on my face, one of the minibus taunts whispers to me: “that is a funeral procession on the way to the grave. It’s another dead newborn baby.”
Yes, it is “another dead newborn” because – so I came to learn – people here are used to seeing women almost week-in and week-out from the Bwaila Hospital (still popularly known by its former name, the Bottom Hospital) which is within the vicinity, on their way to burry babies that have not had the luck to survive. Nothing peculiar!
I have also learnt that this was an epitome of the larger picture of a murky situation in the country where a lot of children are dying on the day of conception, not to mention those who are “fortunate” to survive up to the age of five. The situation is to a great extent worse than in most developed countries in Europe, which means there must be something fundamentally wrong with the way – and the socio-economic environment in which – our children are born and brought up during their early years here.
Surely, I can imagine that what I saw at Lilongwe minibus stage could have triggered much public interest if it had happened at one of the train stations in Brittany, a town in France. It would be peculiar!
Child psychology research has shown that it is during the early years of life that the development of intelligence and social relations occur very rapidly. Any irregularity in a child’s development at this stage will substantially reduce his or her future potential, sometimes even unnecessary death that could have been easily avoided.
Proper attention to the child’s development in the early years, therefore, can help to increase the child’s chances for survival, growth and development. It is believed that whether that child fulfils her or his vast potential is largely in the hands of the family, the community and country into which she or he is born. It is a child’s right to have every chance to survive and thrive.
Likewise, ensuring conditions for a child’s early years is one of the best investments that a country can make if it is to compete in a global economy based on the strength of its human capital. Or, to say the same thing differently, we should begin to forget about the prospects of achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) including, in particular, the goal number-one on halving world poverty by 2015, if public authorities, private sector, and even society at large, do not invest adequately in children during their early years of survival.
The Ministry of Gender and Women and Child Development (MGWCD) launched the National Policy on Early Childhood Development in 2003 which seeks to provide guidelines and coordination of ECD activities and for enhancement of support and investment to ECD programmes in Malawi.
According to MGWCD National ECD Coordinator, Francis Chalamanda, Government has since the launch managed to secure support and partnerships with various stakeholders, and put in place structures, a development which has seen the programme reach out to almost 3 million children in all the 28 districts.
“We have trained at least ten main facilitators in each district to implement the programme within our ECD structures. The beneficiaries’ access rate has now increased to 29 percent from only 5.6 percent in 2003, which is quite a success. The programme has a total of 24000 caregivers, of these 14000 have been trained at national, district and community levels,” he says.
He says his ministry is receiving financial and technical support from other stakeholders like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Plan Malawi, Save the Children, among others, which have enabled Government to develop guidelines on ECD, put in place an ECD syllabus, and develop a comprehensive training manual in ECD. He also says besides linking up with the development partners, Government has achieved a great deal of networking at the community level as well as with other countries.
“Other countries look at Malawi as a star performer, and they regularly come here to learn. We are a model because we have put in place a policy, a training manual, guidelines and an ECD profile. In fact, Link for Education Governance (LEG) has rated our ECD programme with a distinction in terms of access and implementation,” he boasts.
Chalamanda is, however, cautious of complacency when he admits the fact that most of the financial support come from the development partners rather than from Government coffers, in a way justifying World Bank and UNICEF’s fears that many developing countries were giving ECD the least attention in spite of its value and importance to the global crusade against poverty.
“It is very difficult to say exactly how much goes to ECD from government coffers since the budget allocation for the ministry comes in one chunk to cater for many programmes, and ECD is just one of them. But what I can say is that only a fraction is allocated to ECD programmes as it is still accorded low priority from Government,” he says.
What this means is that in the event the international donors reduce or stop funding, Government would not be able to sustain the programmes and quality would significantly be compromised.
He, therefore, proposes the need to increase advocacy to raise awareness among policy makers and Members of Parliament on the importance of ECD to long-term national development, noting there is nothing ever debated in Parliament on ECD.
If that happened, they would now begin to appreciate how investing a significant portion of Governments resources into ECD would offer a lasting solution to the high levels of poverty for the betterment of the present and next generation.