This essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest.
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In a nutshell
What is the problem?
An early childhood development (ECD) program is crucial for the holistic development of children and is one of their fundamental human rights. The school based early childhood development program adopted by the Ministry of Education, Nepal is a mandatory element in all government schools in principle. However, although the provision of ECD has been strategized nationally, the majority of rural community schools do not offer functional ECD classes. In Bajura district, in the Far Western region, the basic elements required for early childhood development classes are almost entirely absent. There is a lack of basic classroom infrastructure as well as trained and skilled ECD facilitators.
What are possible interventions?
A funder could support the construction or renovation of infrastructure for early childhood development, provide essential ECD amenities, and fund capacity building of teachers on child centered pedagogical practices and innovative learning activities.
If funding is available, a few functional Early Childhood Development Centers can be established with proper classroom infrastructure, appropriate learning materials and well trained and skilled facilitators. This will create an enabling environment for the physical, mental, emotional and social development of children. The project supported ECD centers can also become learning centers and models for the school management committees and local governments of several adjacent areas to enhance and upgrade their own ECD centers.
Who else is working on this?
Along with the efforts from the government of Nepal, several other I/NGOs like Seto Gurans, SWAN Nepal and Save the Children, have been working to improve the situation of ECD in rural areas of Nepal, including in Bajura district. However, such projects have not reached the schools situated in the remote and isolated villages of Rugin and Bichhya in Himali Rural Municipality of Bajura district, which are many hours walk away from the nearest fair weather road head.
What is the problem?
The early years of childhood are critical to establish a strong foundation for the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Holistic early childhood education and development (ECED) is the cornerstone for overall development of children and readiness to participate in formal education. Therefore, it is important to provide quality ECED to help children acquire key cognitive and socio-emotional skills and build a strong foundation for more resilient and productive future. The main objective of early childhood development (ECD) is to provide opportunities for the health, nutrition, safety, protection, and early learning for holistic development of children under 8 years of age.
Nepal is a federal democratic republic with seven provinces and 753 local level government authorities. Many districts, especially in the hill and mountain regions, are geographically difficult to access and lack quality education infrastructure. Of the 77 districts in Nepal, Bajura in the deprived Far West region is one of the remotest districts.
At least 70% of the children do not have access to Early childhood care and development facilities in Nepal; most of these live in rural areas. In terms of geographical remoteness and socio-economic wellbeing and access to quality education, there are still many challenges for children in rural areas to reach to their full potential. As most of the early childhood development centers/programs (ECDC) are focused on urban areas and accessible places, children in remote areas lack access to quality ECDCs. Over 40% of children enrolled in primary schools in rural areas do not have ECDC experience. According to multiple indicator cluster survey in Nepal (MICS, 2014), the attendance rate of children in ECD was 78.4 percent in urban areas compared to 47.2 percent in rural areas of Nepal. This is likely a contributor to the large differences in adult literacy rates: 64% in urban and 36% in rural areas. Conversely, the low adult literacy rate makes ECD classes all the more important, as children of illiterate parents have an inherent educational disadvantage.
The physical infrastructure available for ECD is one of the essential factors for organizing learning and development activities for children. It is evident that the performance level of children is better in an ECD having adequate learning materials than one with inadequate learning materials. Likewise, health and nutrition facilities available in ECD is found critical factor affecting the learning and development standards of children. The data from early childhood education (ECE) depicts that the development and learning standards are better in the ECD having health and nutrition service to children compared to those without it.
According to Education International, the quality of ECE in Nepal was found to be limited due to lack of adequate infrastructure and facilities. Only 36% ECD centers had adequate classroom space but still without toilet facilities, drinking water and sanitation. In addition, only 16.8% of children aged 0–59 months had access to any sort of children’s books at home. According to Seto Gurans, an organization working for the welfare of children and promoting early childhood development in Nepal, there is lack of proper infrastructure and instructors in ECDCs and are also poorly managed and disorganized. According to a report published in 2015, a majority of ECDs lacked minimum standards of building, furniture, toilets and drinking water supply. There were issues related to the physical infrastructures, management and functioning of the ECD, for instance; unsuitability of the toilets for small children, lack of out-door playing facilities, and insecurity of children from domestic animals due to the open compound of the ECD and congested classroom and playground.
Situation of ECDs in Bajura
According to District Education Office, there are 223 registered ECDs in Bajura district. PHASE Nepal started working in Himali region since 2015 with Health and Nutrition projects, and has also been working with rural schools via Girl's Empowerment Program since 2019 to enable equal opportunity and access for girls for better health, education and a better life. Working with the rural schools provided the project team with clear insights on the condition of ECDCs in the region.
Currently, there are 20 ECDCs in Himali Rural municipality. As per the observation by PHASE Nepal staff and the data received, the condition of ECD centers is very poor. For example, there are no desks, benches or proper flooring in the classes. Thus, students have to sit on either stones or on the mud floor. There are problems in terms of drinking water supply and toilet facility as well. The schools rarely open, even when they do, they open only for 4 to 6 months per year due to the extreme weather situation (rainy season, landslides in summer, snowfall in winter), teacher’s absence, crop planting and harvesting season and many other reasons. These have negatively affected the academic achievement of the students. Due to the geographical restrictions, schools in Bajura district are not properly monitored by the government and concerned local authorities and teacher’s absenteeism are rarely monitored. Some students have to walk hours to reach the school.
The Ministry of Education has established a National Minimum Standard to ensure the quality services in ECD. It includes standards under eight dimensions: physical infrastructure; health nutrition, and safety; minimum required materials; outdoor environment; ECD management committee and governance; human resource quality; parents, children and community; and drinking water and sanitation. In Bajura, ECDs in schools are not able to comply with the minimum service standards that is set by the government. This signifies the need for a vigorous support so that children could have access to quality education and developmental opportunity at their most crucial starting years.
Why invest in ECD?
Early childhood years are the most cost-effective period to invest in, both for individual benefits and returns to society. Inequity in childcare quality significantly impacts children's capacity to learn, communicate, move, socialize, and express themselves. Therefore, fostering an enabling environment with nurturing care such as good health, optimal nutrition and adequate play and interaction between caregivers and children, learning opportunities, and safety is critical. ECED investment is indispensable because children’s brains swiftly develop during this period, which becomes a foundation for further development. While additional investments are necessary, mobilizing additional resources alone, without due consideration to the quality of inputs, is no guarantee that ECED outcomes will improve.
The early childhood development target by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to increase the percentage of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning, and psychosocial well-being. Nepal has been striving to achieve the target but there persist significant disparities. Investment in early childhood development does not only provide greater returns as improved cognitive and social-emotional development, school readiness, health and nutritional status; it is also instrumental in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 4. In education, the SDGs agenda and the new constitution advocate for inclusive, equitable, and quality access to education that encompasses early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary education, and technical and vocational training. In addition to that, James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, conducted research that revealed that spending $1 on quality early childhood programs can result in returns of between $4 and $16.
Due to the geographical restrictions and ignorance, schools in Rugin and Bichhya village of Bajura district are not monitored periodically by the concerned authorities. Likewise, students have to walk for several hours to reach the nearest schools. Children from some of the isolated villages like Rugin and Bichhya have to walk for more than a day to reach school as there are no proper road and any means of transportation which is why they are deprived of education. Due to lack of quality education in the early childhood, children are deprived of necessary life-skills which makes it difficult for them to get better livelihood opportunities in future. Lack of early childhood education and development opportunities lead to childhood marriage, labor migration and other social problems. Mostly, the youth in Bajura district are relied on menial jobs specially in India and other gulf countries.  Therefore, investing in early childhood development would provide them the opportunity for their right to education which could largely influence the life of children under the age of eight and can play a significant role in how their future is mapped out.
What are the possible interventions?
Construct or renovate infrastructures for early childhood development
A better physical infrastructure in ECD is important for creating an enabling environment for better learning and development activities for children. Availability of dedicated space and creative learning corners creates a joyful learning atmosphere that promotes all round development of children via independent learning as well as guided learning. The ECDCs in Bajura district, especially in Himali rural municipality, are poorly constructed with no proper classrooms or basic physical infrastructure and playing materials. A philanthropist could contribute to build a few model ECDCs by constructing new or upgrading existing centers. A gender-friendly, child-friendly, and disabled-friendly infrastructure could be made available which can provide a suitable learning environment that can contribute in the physical, cognitive, social and intellectual development of the children right from the start.
Support for essential ECD amenities
There are some minimum facilities required for a quality ECD centers to function effectively. These are in-classroom arrangements of space and learning materials; health and nutrition support, and safety arrangements for children; indoor and outdoor play materials and playing space, drinking water and sanitation arrangements. The learning experience of children depends on the availability and utilization of these arrangements which are severely lacking in the Himali Rural Municipality of Bajura district where the proposed project aims to work.
A philanthropist could support any of the mentioned aspects required for the revitalization of the early childhood centers. This could be physical support such as providing flooring, furniture or whiteboards to the classrooms or teaching /learning materials, learning toys, children’s books, role-play corners and a decent open space with a safe outdoor playing arrangement. This could create an enabling environment where children are able to learn, communicate, socialize and express themselves.
Capacity building for teachers or facilitators on pedagogical practices
In addition to physical arrangements, another important support a philanthropist could provide is provision of competent and trained ECD facilitators/teachers. Specialized Early Childhood Development Training for the local facilitators of the ECDCs could contribute to sustainable change. Innovative learning activities such as circle time, outdoor and indoor games, drama, music, storytelling, roleplaying, pair activity, etc., is possible only when a well-trained facilitator is available. Such trained and skilled facilitators/teachers can have a major positive impact on the overall development of the children.
Community Engagement and Media
Additionally, collaborating with mass media, a philanthropist could support programs for the enhancement of the knowledge, skills and practices of a quality early childhood care to wider audiences (mothers, leaders, child clubs). For instance, an educational program on a local radio involving the community, school team and children, promoting better awareness and practices regarding early childhood education will promote the institutionalization of early childhood education.
Due to high levels of illiteracy, parents in the remote areas in Bajura are not aware of the importance of early education to their children, although this could be a significant investment for their better future. A philanthropist could support targeted programs to update parents, guardians and caregivers about the knowledge and skills related to early childhood development. We could provide orientation to parents and members of school management committees, enabling and motivating them for enhancing the ECDs of their localities. In addition, the parents can also be coached to create an enabling environment for children at home.
Several efforts have been made to expand access to ECD in Nepal, improving its quality and maintaining standards in its operation and management from the Government side; however, there is still a lack of systematic effort to measure early learning and development skills acquired by children involved in early childhood programs. It is important to understand the practices of early childhood education and explore the challenges faced by the concerned authorities to efficiently conduct ECDs. A philanthropist could assist in conducting research related to early childhood development and help develop and promote best practices.
Who else is working on this?
The government of Nepal has been making efforts through comprehensive and integrated approaches to promote early childhood development through integrated interventions. The commitments of the government are visibly reflected in the new Constitution of Nepal, the eighth amendment of the Education Act and the School Sector Development Plan (SSDP) and National strategy for early childhood development (2077-2088). The recently published national strategy  intends to enhance educational performance and increase productivity to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by incorporating all five aspects of nurturing care: good health, proper nutrition, early learning and responsive care, safety, and security. However, major challenges persist for the development of consistent, quality early childcare and education. There is a lack of an integrated program for holistic development of children; lack of childcare programs for children from conception to below 4 years of age; inadequate professional training and low level of motivation of the facilitators; and a lack of a strong network between the government, communities, NGOs and INGOs to advocate for integrated holistic early childhood developments programs, or to undertake coordinated actions.
Several I/NGOs have been involved in implementing and supporting ECD programs in Nepal. Seto Gurans National Child Development Services has been working in the field of Early Childhood Development at national, district and community level since 1979. Some other organizations have conducted programs in the area of ECD with significant impact and showing evidence that there is more to do in the area. Save the Children in Nepal also support children’s development by creating early learning opportunities during their first formative years and facilitating supportive learning and teaching environments in school. Social Welfare Association of Nepal (SWAN) works to ensure adequate support to government and community schools to provide quality education. Similarly, some other local NGOs such as PRAYAS-Nepal has also been working on a project, "Investing in Early Childhood Development Projects". Furthermore, Volunteers Initiative Nepal (VIN) has been providing school-based Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers in some rural areas of Nepal. However, such efforts and programs related to early childhood development do not have wide geographical coverage and are not currently implemented in remote Bajura district.
Questions for future investigation
PHASE Nepal has been working since 2007 to improve access to education opportunities and improve the quality of education in remote rural areas of Nepal. PHASE provides teacher training and material support to schools to ensure the education they provide is child friendly and has also supported the rebuilding of schools after the 2015 earthquake. However, due to pandemic and its associated limitations on financial resources, we have not been able to continue our effort on this direction.
Finally, from one of the possible interventions mentioned above i.e., to conduct research, we are yet to answer many important questions. Finding the answers to the questions below could help us design interventions for a quality early childhood development.
- What is the situation of early childhood development in remote areas of Bajura districts? Has the minimum standard for quality early childhood been maintained?
- What are the challenges to maintain quality early childhood development?
- What is the impact among children those involved in early childhood development?
- What is the perception of parents, teachers and community stakeholders towards early childhood development?
Specific funding for this area of work could have a significant impact on the future life chances of disadvantaged children in the very remote rural communities we are working in.
Services, S.G.N.C.D. Fostering all round development of children for school readiness. 2015 [cited 2022 July 19]; Available from: http://setoguransncds.org.np/storage/download/1561700376_5.%20Fostering%20unicef%20report.pdf.
Services, S.G.N.C.D. Model ECD centers in Bajura District. 2019 [cited 2022 July 20]; Available from: http://setoguransncds.org.np/ecd/show/model-ecd-centres-in-bajura-district.
Services, S.G.N.C.D. Status of Early Childhood Development Centers: A Study Based on National Minimum Standard 2011 [cited 2022 July 20]; Available from: http://setoguransncds.org.np/storage/download/1561703376_2.%20Minimum%20Standard%20Report-14septFinal%20revised-converted.pdf.
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