We must invest in young children and ensure their parents and communities have what they need to help them

Spotlight On Maniza Ntekim

Early childhood development, Spotlight On ...

Every child deserves the best start in life – including a healthy birth and quality and inclusive early childhood development and education. 

But too many children from poorer and marginalised households are unable to access the support and care they need. Early childhood development (ECD) has been a core part of Theirworld’s work for many years, with a focus more recently on investment in early childhood education (ECE).

In Kenya, Theirworld has been partnering with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to advocate for young children and ensure there is adequate investment in their ECD and learning. 

In the latest in our Spotlight On … series, which features inspiring people from the world of education, we speak to Maniza Ntekim about her work as Senior Programme Officer for the Early Childhood Development East and Southern Africa Initiative at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Can you describe your relationship with Theirworld?    

It began in 2016 while I was a Senior Programme Officer at the Open Society Foundations (OSF). There, I led OSF’s work on early childhood development (ECD) in Africa and globally. Ensuring access to quality early childhood education (ECE) was a major goal of OSF, so we were very pleased to partner with Theirworld on driving through that agenda. 

I worked very closely with the Theirworld team, looking at ways to influence major influencers of education policy and financing including the Global Partnership for Education, the World Bank, UNICEF and others.

I was very pleased to lead on the development of OSF’s first grant to Theirworld in support of their #5for5 campaign, which focused on ensuring that all children by the age of five have everything they need to develop fully including good health, adequate nutrition, early learning, play and protection. 

When I left OSF in 2018 to take up a position as UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office’s Early Childhood Development Regional Adviser, I continued working closely with Theirworld. We have always been kindred spirits!  

Can you tell us about why the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation invests in early childhood development?  

The foundation has been driven to invest in early childhood development for three main reasons. Firstly, by our founder, Conrad Hilton, who identified children as a primary focus for the foundation’s work in his last will and testament. 

Secondly by the evidence from neuroscience, economics and human development showing that the best investment any society can make, if it wants to tackle inequity and social exclusion and achieve sustainable development, is to invest in early childhood development. 

Finally, knowing that millions of children are missing out on an opportunity to develop fully keeps us up at night so we are really committed to this agenda. 

What do you hope that the impact will be of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s partnership with Theirworld? 

I hope that by having a partnership with Theirworld we can shine a spotlight on an area which I believe is really the development issue of our time – making sure that young children, during the most critical stage of human development, are given all they need to develop fully and that their families are supported to enable their children to reach their full potential. 

Theirworld’s advocacy reach and capacity can really help us achieve some of the major objectives we have outlined in our strategy. 

Specifically, I hope our partnership will result in more public financial investment in young children and families, especially within the sectors that matter most for young children including health, education and social welfare. A particular focus for us as a foundation is in increasing health sector investment in early childhood development.  

The learning crisis is such a huge problem to solve. What keeps you motivated when the obstacles feel too big to overcome?   

I have had the greatest privilege and fortune to meet with many parents, families, school leaders, local community champions and influential national and sub-national decision-makers in my time. 

Seeing their commitment to do the best they can for their children and the children they are responsible for is really inspiring. 

I have met families who have fled from conflict and disaster, and those without the resources many of us take for granted, hungry for the best possible outcomes they can provide for their children. Hungry just like me with my own children. 

I think one meeting I’ll never forget was with girls – barely 15 and already mothers living in rural Angola in Huila Province. When I asked what they wanted for their children they said things like “to be a doctor” and “to have a better life than me”.  I said: “That’s exactly what I want for my daughters too.”

For me the learning crisis has to be overcome – there’s no choice. Through education individuals, families and societies will be able to determine their own destiny. I have seen that in my own life and it’s what I believe to be an incontrovertible truth. So that’s what always keeps me motivated.  

What are the immediate steps you’d take to resolve the learning crisis? 

I would invest in the early years because I believe that’s where the roots of the learning crisis begin. I would do all I can to make sure that during the first 1,000 days of life children get all that they need to be physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually on track to develop to their full potential. 

The capacity to learn, think critically, communicate and work well with others is developed long before most children even step foot into a classroom. So the immediate step I’d take is to invest in young children and to ensure that their parents, caregivers and communities have all they need to give their children the best possible start in life.   

What are the main issues you always feel are overlooked or underplayed in the learning crisis? 

For me there are three issues. Firstly, as mentioned above, there’s the failure to make sure that children come to school ready to learn – and that’s why the investment in the early years is most critical. 

Secondly there isn’t enough focus on quality and on making sure that schools are themselves ready to welcome children and support their learning. There are three things at the heart of quality. There’s what the children learn (curriculum), there’s how they’re taught (learning methodologies) and there’s who they’re taught by (teachers). 

If we can get those three things right (and it’s no mean feat) we will have more children arriving in school, staying in school and moving on to bigger and better things. 

The final thing that I think is often overlooked is the equity angle – that’s another reason why I believe in investing in the early years. 

We know that inequalities begin in utero. Some families and children need all the help they can get. Our systems – education included – are heavily skewed towards supporting the more affluent, the more connected and the more accessible. 

We need to shift our funding models so that more goes to the youngest, more goes to the most neglected geographical areas and more goes to the groups most often left behind – including children with disabilities, children caught up in conflict, children from minority ethnic groups and girls.  

What is the greatest lesson you have learnt outside of the classroom? 

I think the most insightful thing I have learnt is that most learning happens outside of the classroom! Learning starts in the womb, it is fostered and supported in homes and communities and the most important teachers are parents and caregivers. Covid-19 has surely taught us all that. 

If I can sneak in another connected lesson, it is that we have a captive audience when it comes to parents and caregivers. They want to do the best they can and the question is how we can support them to do that.  

What are your reflections from working on ECD in Kenya? 

There is such great opportunity in Kenya for all aspects of ECD. Kenya has one of the most sophisticated systems of devolution in East and Southern Africa – the thought and focus that has gone into devolution in Kenya is almost beyond comparison. 

Because ECD has been devolved to local levels there is a really good opportunity to support parents and their young children closer to home.

Another great opportunity is the drive and ambition around health and education. The provision of universal health care has been a major priority for the presidency and the opportunity this affords for ensuring the health system is better capacitated to support early childhood development is fantastic.

Kenyans – across income levels, across geographies and, in fact, across the board – believe in education and invest heavily in education. Kenya has one of the highest rates of enrolment in early childhood education – over three-quarters of children go to pre-primary school. 

This is staggering considering that the regional average is barely reaching a third. This means that there is community, county and national level support for the ECE agenda that can be built on. 

There are all these positive things to build upon but there is need for three additional things. Firstly, we need more public financial investment in the early years. At least 10% of the education budget should go to early childhood education and there should be more investment in primary healthcare and tracking of how that investment supports early childhood development. 

Second, we need a clear policy framework for early childhood development and legislation that is implemented to ensure children’s multiple needs are addressed and that all sectors including health, education and social welfare are delivering on their responsibilities when it comes to young children. 

Finally, we need ECD recognised and positioned as a high national priority with decision-makers and other influencers at national and local levels vocally and actively supporting this agenda. 

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