Early Childhood Development: a mere good investment?

by Jorge Solozabal Zapata — ARNEC Conference 2019, Hanoi, Vietnam 4–6 December 2019

Image credit: Rafael Gonzalez via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“It is not only the right thing to do but it is the smart way to act”. The words are those of Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific, at her opening speech of the 2019 ARNEC Conference in Vietnam.

To put this quote in context, Mrs Hulshof was referring to the great importance of local governments and organisations to join forces so as to address the severe issues related to Early Childhood Development (ECD) in the Asia-Pacific Region. As she later mentioned, by saying “smart way to act” she made allusion to these efforts as good investments. It is a really interesting remark because, in my view, it exemplifies the ideals and interests underlying the role of some international/nonlocal actors (like UNICEF) at this conference. In the course of these days, one could hear plenty of other similar statements made by some of the most influential presenters, like “if the State invests 1$ in the education of a child, it will get 7$ back”, etc.

The biggest challenges in this region, as well as elsewhere, are most of the times local organisations’ and governments’ passivity, lack of funds, etc. Conferences like ARNEC’s are meant to encourage local actors to work together and act in order to address problems accordingly. However, does the fact that the implementation of proper policies in the field of ECD has proven to be a profitable investment entail the right way to prompt local actors to act?

Even though “investment” might simply refer to putting effort into something to achieve a result, it has marked economic traits. In other words, nonlocal actors have claimed that it is important to work on ECD because it will bring about economic profit. However, not everyone agrees that this is the most valid reason to provide nurturing and sustainable environments for young children to thrive. Instead, it might be a matter of moral duty, namely, doing the right thing just for the sake of doing what is right.

The idea of seeking economic profit must never be what leads one to act in the right way, and UNICEF should learn that lesson. The reasons are several. Firstly, there are plenty of other grounds more valid than money, like the feeling of moral duty (as I said before), solidarity, commitment to people’s welfare, etc. Secondly, humanitarian actions of the sort of those addressed in the ARNEC Conference should not be driven by economic interests. This is so because they might turn out to be extremely harmful as they do not take human well being, but profit, as a priority.

Even though, at the end of the day, UNICEF and other INGOs are the ones who provide the essential funding to address the issues related to ECD in the Asia-Pacific Region, money and capital cannot have a central role in a conference of this sort, where the main goals are others: promoting cooperation across sectors, learning from each other, and encouraging local actors to act.

The excessive use of economic terms (like “investment”) is, then, not justified. The high authorities of International NGOs should change their discourse as the countries represented in the 2019 Arnec Conference cannot be seen as a mere ground for good investments.

Author: Jorge Solozabal Zapata, BA Politics and Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Interests: ethics, geopolitics, migration, languages, etc.

Contact details: email jsolozabalzapata1@sheffield.ac.uk; twitter @JorSolZap