January 31, 2020

Why advocating for early childhood education must be local as well as global

Children who attend pre-primary school have a much better chance of developing key emergent skills in literacy and numeracy

Photo credit: Faith Ocharo / Theirworld

Michael Simpson

Senior Research and Project Manager, Early Childhood Development, at Theirworld

International donors are crucial - but educating and informing key decision-makers within countries like Kenya is also vital if young children are to develop the basic skills they need.

With a new decade upon us, and 2030 only 10 years away, the moment is ripe to think about the progress the world is making towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

At Theirworld, our focus is on increasing investment for early childhood education (ECE). Our request is straightforward. We want both international donors and individual governments to increase investment in ECE to 10% of education spending. 

Our advocacy therefore takes a parallel track. Winning big commitments from multilateral institutions like UNICEF, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education is a start, but not enough on its own. We also need to see governments elevate ECE as a key pillar of education reform.

This is why we have turned our advocacy focus towards Kenya. Our ambition, as at the global level, is to educate and inform key decision-makers within the country on the importance of ECE. 

As the evidence clearly demonstrates, there are education big wins for governments that back ECE. Children who attend pre-primary school have a much better chance of developing key emergent skills in literacy and numeracy, and are much more likely to progress through primary into secondary education. 

Crucially, for governments looking to make smart investments, every dollar spent on ECE is likely to yield around $17 in return. For countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this return can be as high as $33. 

A child's most important steps happen before they set foot in a primary school

Photo credit: Theirworld

This is intrinsically linked to children’s learning. As UNICEF highlights, investing in ECE creates a positive ripple effect throughout the whole education system. 

With more children on track in literacy and numeracy, key risks such as grade-repetition and dropping-out are reduced. Children, in short, are given the best opportunity to thrive.

But national advocacy is not a straight-forward task. Increasing investment in ECE needs more than just buy-in at the Ministry of Education. It requires a cross-government vision, with leadership coming from the very top. 

For countries like Kenya and neighbouring Ethiopia, devolution adds an additional layer of responsibility. In Kenya, while responsibility for primary and secondary education rests with the national government, investment in the early years has been divested to the country’s 47 counties.

For a country as diverse as Kenya, home to several different ethnic groups and where tens of different languages are spoken, devolution puts decision-makers closer to the communities they represent. 

To achieve change, it is not enough to think of countries as unified blocks, but to understand them as distinct political, social and cultural ecologies.

For instance, while the overall literacy rate is 65%, there is a stark divide between urban and rural communities. Reaching the pastoral communities of Turkana will require a very different approach to the children who call the Kibera slum in Nairobi home. 

And yet, devolution also means that responsibility for children’s futures sits with many more people. While counties receive a block grant from the national government, local decision-makers are free to spend this where they feel needs are highest. 

The grant, which can be supplemented with revenue generated from local taxation, is intended for key services such as health, transport and urban planning. Like at the national level, making the case for the early years comes in the face of numerous competing demands.

This is the challenge as we look to 2030. To achieve change, it is not enough to think of countries as unified blocks, but to understand them as distinct political, social and cultural ecologies. 

In 2015, Kenya spent 1.8% of its national education budget on early childhood education. With devolution coming into effect, it has become more difficult to assess levels of investment. 

This only emphasises the importance of advocacy that is alive to the dynamics of local decision-making. As a small, nimble organisation, Theirworld is uniquely placed to achieve this kind of change. By investing in and supporting local advocacy actors, we can reach places other organisations cannot. 

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