Our future starts with our youngest children

To achieve our most ambitious goals, we must start by investing in the youngest children: Why early childhood development is the cornerstone of sustainable development

In 2015, world leaders came together at the United Nations to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a vision of the future we want.

The Agenda includes a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help focus those efforts.

The SDGs are ambitious: they paint a world with no hunger or poverty, and with a healthy environment, gender equality, and quality education for all. Six years later, however, the world is badly off track. The COVID-19 pandemic has made a bad situation even worse, sending more than 100 million people back into poverty; denying vulnerable children years of learning; and taking millions of women out of the labor force.

If we are to get the goals back on track, we must prioritize and invest in those areas that have the most potential to catalyze progress across many goals at once. Investing in the healthy development of young children and supporting their caregivers should be at the very top of this list.

Dedicating resources to early childhood development (ECD) is both powerful and practical, offering us an opportunity to accelerate progress by prioritizing innovations to support young children and their parents, caregivers, and educators. Ultimately, prioritizing and investing in the youngest children may be the key to achieving our biggest goals. It is a no brainer.

As a new year approaches, we have an opportunity to find new ways to drive momentum toward reaching our goals by 2030.

Early investments yield long-term dividends

Decades of research demonstrate that the first eight years of a child’s life are the most important for their development. This is when a child’s brain develops faster than at any other time. Making sure children in this window have adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving, good health, safe environments, and playful early learning opportunities can pay huge dividends.

Of course, not all childhoods look the same, and this window is even more crucial for children who are growing up amid conflict and crisis. In 2019, UNICEF estimated more than 1 in 5 babies globally spent their earliest moments in communities affected by the chaos of conflict, often in deeply unsafe and highly stressful environments. Unsurprisingly, research confirms that exposure to crisis and conflict can delay a child’s development and is associated with later struggles with mental health and social functioning.

When we talk about expanding quality ECD opportunities, we must mean opportunities for all children, especially those living in crisis contexts worldwide who may experience even more barriers to development and learning. This is why the United Nations and Sesame Workshop collaborate with partners all around the world to design and deliver early childhood development and parenting support programs for children and families living in crisis-affected contexts.

One set of investments, many areas of progress

Beyond meeting our obligations to individual children and families, investments in early childhood also represent good fiscal stewardship of our limited resources. They allow us to accelerate progress toward many of our most ambitious goals simultaneously. A look down the list of SDGs can help to illustrate this point:

SDG 1 focuses on eliminating poverty, and SDG 8 on economic growth. Research suggests that every US$ 1 spent on pre-primary education results in US$ 9 of benefits to society. Furthermore, long-term follow-ups of early childhood development programs show that quality ECD services can increase the wages an individual will earn as an adult.

SDG 2 focuses on hunger, SDG 3 on health and well-being, and SDG 6 on water and sanitation. Holistic ECD programs can deliver nutritional supplementation, teach children healthy hygiene habits, and deliver important public health messaging. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sesame Workshop partnered with BRAC to co-create educational media content that incorporated health and safety practices for COVID-19 mitigation. The messages were distributed safely to Rohingya refugee families and Bangladeshi host communities in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh through audio announcements, storybooks, and posters.

SDG 5 envisions a world with gender equality. Quality ECD programs can ensure that girls have the same early opportunities to learn and grow as boys. Powerful girl characters in Sesame Street’s international co-productions around the world show girls they can and should dream big — and help boys develop equitable attitudes, too.

Of course, the educational benefits of ECD are among the most well-documented effects. SDG 4 focuses on education, with a target specifically on quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education. Quality ECD programming and early learning through play is shown to build a foundation for a child’s later success in school and beyond. UNICEF is working with field offices, Sesame Workshop, and other partners to reimagine the ECD Kit for Emergencies — estimated to have reached more than 7 million children globally between 2009 and 2018. The revised Kit will increase opportunities for all children in humanitarian settings, including those with disabilities, to engage in quality, play-based learning. Next year, the United Nations Secretary-General will host an Education Summit aimed at getting governments to increase the level of priority and resources they give to education.

As we take stock of where we are and where we want to go as a global community, let us recommit to supporting children and families with healthy beginnings as the only way we can truly make progress toward the 2030 Agenda.

Together, we can equip the world with a generation ready to thrive and to drive the world’s next ambitious agenda.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Sherrie Westin, President of Sesame Workshop