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20.06.2005 Feature Article

Do Africa's Infants Have Any Future?

Do Africa's Infants Have Any Future?
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A GNA Feature by Benjamin Mensah

Accra, June 19, GNA - The roar of the breaking waves of the blue Atlantic echoed the deprivation of Africa's children. The children walk bare-chested, bare-footed along the beaches, and in the dilapidated classrooms they crouch over kitchen stools to write, while about 300 high profile personalities sat in a swanky seaside hotel discussing their fate.

The dreadful HIV/AIDS has also killed or hospitalised their parents, and as the sea rumbled, the 300 high profile personalities, delegates to the Third African International Conference on Early Childhood Development (ECD) exited the plush La Palm Royal Beach Hotel in Accra, with renewed impetus to tackle ECD issues in their respective 39 African countries.

For five days, May 30 to June 3 2005, the delegates: Ministers and representatives of Ministers, Governments, Civil Societies and Non-Governmental Organisations and development partners met to discuss matters relating to early childhood - conception to first six years - care of Africa's children. The first two conferences had taken place in Kampala, Uganda in 1999 and Asmara, Eritrea in 2002. During the first conference, ECD best practices in Africa were showcased, and during the second, experiences were shared. The third, held in Accra on the theme: "Moving Early Childhood Development Forward in Africa" was to solicit the commitment of Governments in Africa to prioritise ECD issues.

Indeed, not only does the future of Africa lie with the well-being of her children, but also proper early childhood care is a sure way for promoting human resource development, social transformation and prosperity in Africa The technical sessions of the conference discussed varied issues of ECD with respect to the family and the community; provision of quality basic services and ensuring supportive policy environments. Ghana's First Lady Theresa Kufuor, opening the Conference noted that even though the world was becoming aware of the need to invest in young children, the UNICEF's State of the World's Children Report for 2005 indicated that half of the world's two billion children live in dire poverty and deprivation.

In Ghana, 20,000 children of school going age are outside the walls of the classroom. The situation is not different in other countries of Africa, where a lot of children have no access to schooling. In Africa, national investments in ECD tend to be very low. It is noted that less than 10 per cent of children eligible for early childhood programmes are enrolled in childcare centres. However, at the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, in April 2000, the international community agreed to put in place the Education for All Programme, which has as one of its goals the expansion and improvement of early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Healthy growth, survival and quality learning are very crucial to early childhood development. Also, the fact that 90 per cent of childhood development in education takes place within the first three years, makes it imperative for the child to have the enabling environment for development. Education as the basis for development is constrained by the lack of human resources, which invariably is not well remunerated in most African countries. Furthermore, policies adopted in the interest of early childhood development must remain continuously focused on practical needs. The policies have to be matched by adequate resources to make them effective.

Perhaps a cut down on the huge expenditure of hiring first class and plush hotels, with their attendant sumptuous, and heaps of food, with good drinks to wash them down, and the other extras for delegates could be used to care for the bare-footed, bare-chested children that roam the beaches, the streets and follow cattle through the northern savannah. A little of the per diem would have helped put the poor children in the classroom.

Additionally, much more could have been achieved if delegates had deliberately agreed to donate a bag of cement each for the building of a new classroom block or rehabilitate one of the many classroom blocks that are either crumbling or in a state of disrepair. Such a building, which could be named after the Conference, could serve as a living testimony, a constant reminder to African leaders to back policies on ECD with pragmatic actions.

The Vice President of Ghana, Alhaji Aliu Mahama, in a closing address to the Conference, said Africa toys with the future of her children and youth to her own peril. "We must continue to invest in the welfare and development of our children as the most critical part of our response to our developmental challenges." The Vice President noted that the care of children was a religious duty, and Africa needed new insights into capitalising on her strengths in the traditional family and community norms while at the same time addressing some of the negative practices.

Early childhood development is tied to the achievement of the ideals of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), where scientists and technicians recognise that the greater investment in early child development is essential if the goals of poverty reduction, universal primary education, preventing child disease, reduction of child mortality, malnutrition and gender equality were to be achieved. Equally important is the role of fathers in achieving a solid foundation for early childhood care. Since fathers caused the birth of their children and "the beauty of sons is their fathers", it behoves fathers not to shirk their responsibilities towards their children, but rather to bring them up with proper discipline and mental regulation. If paternity leave is granted fathers alongside, their expectant wives and fathers were allowed into the labour wards to witness the agonising -"Push! Push!! Push!!!" Their wives go through, perhaps more fathers would be caring enough and see the need to become responsible fathers and husbands.

Love your wife and your children will thrive. Also the prayers of a man who does not honour his wife are hindered. (I Peter 3:7). Clearly, if Africa would make a breakthrough in her human resource development to transform her economies to match those of the Asian Tigers, then Leaders of the Continent must take a second look at ECD, and adopt pragmatic approach to it. Enough of the politicking over puny issues! African Leaders must sit up, and take to heart the appeal of the Conference, in its communiqu=E9, to the African Union, to put the development of infants and children as an urgent priority on their agenda.