Reflections from the ASEAN seminar workshop on ECCD systems

At one point of my community development career, I got to manage a project in Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD). In the Philippines, this is given legal and policy support through Republic Act 8980 or the ECCD Law.

Why ECCD? ECCD, from the perspective of neuroscience, is the early period of life (0-8) when the child is predisposed the highest to care and education, and that beyond these years growth and development (of the brain, etc.) plateaus (or, in other words, the brain is more or less permanently formed). At the level of the individual child, this means that when the child during this age period is deprived of appropriate psycho-social, physical, and cognitive care, stimulation and development, he or she is at risk of being impaired for life (hence the socially-, emotionally-, or cognitively-impaired adults). Investing in ECCD (early years of a child) from the perspective of economics, using cost-benefit analysis, translates to long-term economic benefits to society in that USD1 of investment in ECCD produces USD3-17 in returns. However, what’s happening is many States support policies and direct the bulk of public financing at precisely the stage where the child or individual citizen isn’t anymore that responsive to inputs (care and education). States missed the boat, so to say.

It’s a whole different exciting world, ECCD. At that time, the direction within the community was toward alternative early child care and education strategies one of which is supervised neighborhood playgroups (SNPs), a low-cost version of the Western playgroup model. Alternative or non-center based strategies are meant to address the issue of access which includes aspects of availability and affordability (given that the mandate is just for one day care center and one day care worker to a barangay or village, and how many 3-5 year olds are there in a village? further, only those living within the village center where the day care center is usually located have access to the program) and quality parenting. SNPs are designed to be mobile (willing families within a neighborhood host the playgroup session in their houses, or even under the mango tree if houses are too small) and low cost (materials are made by parents and out of readily-available and local materials). The playgroup facilitator (known as child development worker), a volunteer and may be a parent, undergoes a series of training on child care and development in order to provide that level of quality care and interaction with the children.

But SNPs are just one among many programs in ECCD. Anyway, between the time I left that professional path and until this week when I was back in the community was more or less 10 years. My return though very brief – three days – has renewed in me the advocacy I’ve always had for pregnant women, parents, and young children and enabled me to see the growth and improvement within the ECCD community and ASEAN level at that.

The ASEAN Seminar-Workshop on ECCD Systems Development, an initiative under the Blueprint for the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, and led by the DSWD (Philippines) has just concluded and below are things from the community sharing and discussion which struck me as significant for the ECCD community, in the order of importance:

1. Public-Private Partnerships or collaboration in ECCD are largely unexplored and untapped in this country. I’m struck by the business model in Singapore where the private sector run the child care centers (for 0-3 and 4-6) and government functions as the licensing and regulatory body. It is aimed that these centers are built within 300 meters of settlement areas, to bring child care service closer to families. Depending on the classification of the center, prices for services could be as high as $800 per day(the highest by the way), though the government sets a cap as part of its regulatory function (see, how come Philippines doesn’t when prices of basic stuff are bleeding the people – especially the poor – dry?). To most parents in the Philippines, $800 child care service daily is beyond their reach but when you think about it Singaporeans can afford the amount because almost all of them – both parents – are working (hence the imperative for child care centers) whereas here it’s unemployment, underemployment, and joblessness. Singapore however subsidizes child care for the small percentage of low income families (incapacity of these parents to earn their highest potential is due to dysfunctions in the families such as drug use, etc.). Overall, the model in Singapore is one which shows that this is a country which is taking good care of its people, and while it’s ahead in terms of quality ECCD it continues to seek ways to further improve the system. Malaysia is another ASEAN country moving into PPPs in ECCD delivery, as part of its economic transformation agenda (ECCD is recognized by the government and so placed high up in the agenda as a significant contributor to the economic transformation of Malaysia. Human resource investment, see?). The corporate sector is offered three models to choose from: setting up child care centers in corporate offices (for employees), fund pooling from which to subsidize employees’ child care needs (reportedly, good child care frees up workers from worry thereby increasing productivity and loyalty to company), and collaborating with other businesses to adopt a center or centers either in the urban or rural community, all as part of their CSR. The challenge though is how to sell or market ECCD to the corporate sector in such a way that the sector latches on to it as well as it is understood as a right instead of as a privilege or charity to children and their parents (employees).

While we were taking a snack break, somebody from the private sector, microfinance, chatted us up (such gatherings are after all opportunities for networking as well) and we learned that her company has ventured into targeting day care centers as part of its clientele and at the same time outreach programme and its aim is to level up the quality of day care centers one client area at a time. It brought home to me that the private sector has not been idle in extending itself to how and where it can reinvent itself (because after all it’s the thing that will keep you in business) and that business people are the most creative, generally, in terms of putting up business models that work for the social sector as well. This is the real essence of public-private partnerships, beyond the administrative and mechanical setting up of private sector funds for public infrastructures and services. Government should initiate firming up or deepening the partnership or relationship with the private sector, which is what the private sector has been harking for anyway; that most in the private sector are not out there to intentionally make the poor poorer because the viable business model now is one that takes into account the environment and people otherwise they’re going to be hurt bad so perhaps it just that business people need a bit more of information from the social sector about the social side of things to aid them in planning and decision-making.

2. ECCD covers the age of zero or prenatal and perinatal care, as it is scientifically proven that a healthy mother is highly likely to give birth to a healthy child and that interaction between mother and her unborn child at this stage stimulates the child’s development in utero, which provides the child a head start in life. But, unfortunately, as seen in the Region, perinatal care is not that taken seriously by the mother as well as the health system. Many pregnant women are not aware of the importance of early stimulation to the development of their (unborn) children. Many children and mothers too are put to unnecessary risk at birth because of untrained birth attendants, lack of qualified health personnel (midwives, nurses, doctors), and inefficient referral system. The State therefore has to take into account basic care for pregnant women (maternal health care).

3. Child care and development for children aged 1-3 in the Region is lacking especially in poor areas where these are needed the most. However, parenting should address this lack although it is agreed that the kind of parenting young children receive at home is not always the good kind. Take the case of malnutrition among young children for example. Parenting has a hand in this in that parents of young children may give priority to buying non-essentials instead of for nutritional food, parents are not knowledgeable in food preparation given the nutritional needs of young children (infants and toddlers), or parents have misplaced knowledge about food choices as for example believing that expensive and artificially prepared food is better (nutritionally) than home-cooked and home-grown vegetables. In such cases, the lack of food isn’t always the cause. As a result, young children do not reach their full potential in terms of one physical growth and development. By the way, stunting because of malnutrition is quite high in the country, and this already put children to a bad start in life.

4. Day care especially in the Philippines is believed – both by parents and most day care workers – to be a day of doing complicated sums and multiplications and forced reading. Which is so wrong and traumatic for young children, even if they don’t show the trauma but their brains register it and manifest itself sooner or later. Children 3-5 are not yet at that development stage wherein their brains are naturally ready to do such things, and more often than not day care workers don’t know this because first of all they don’t have the qualifications to work with young children – no academic or practical background in child psychology, care and development of the young child, or in preschool education. Regardless of whether LGUs are aware of this or not, unqualified workers are like monsters working with young children – they do more harm than good. Worse, parents (who also lack solid parenting education or practical/intuitive knowledge) pressure the workers to “teach”. Imagine the violations done to these young children.

5. Economic growth in this country fails to factor in human resource development. Such is not a viable model. No one, in the end, benefits from such a model. Neglected, bullied, and impaired children grow up to become monster adults (the joke within the community is, if only public leaders had received appropriate and good care and development in their childhood the country will benefit from their leadership), setting off a vicious cycle. The way to break the chain is to invest in quality ECCD and now. It’s what “inclusive growth” should include. The youth will be the hope of the fatherland only if they have had good childhood experiences.

6. National priority in terms of education is given to higher grade levels. But the graph above shows investment stands to make higher returns (to individual children and society as a whole) when such is put into the early years specifically preschool up to Grade 3 (5-8 year olds). This is the phase in childhood when the brain (which controls emotions, cognitive abilities, etc.) is most absorptive, malleable, and predisposed to formation.

7. Multi-agency collaboration is the feature of the ECCD system. In Indonesia 11 Ministries need to talk to each other in order to deliver a “unified and seamless” ECCD program. But more than this, I saw that people from Town Planning are also involved. Since I’m taking up urban management this got me interested. In the Philippines, one of the reasons cited for why children don’t go or leave school is “far distance” of schools from their residences, necessitating walking kilometers every day (often subjecting girls and boys to risks such as violence on the road). To the household and school, the issue is seen as physical distance but planners and urban managers I surmise see it differently. Planners would be more concerned about locating such infrastructures (public schools) in that you don’t build where the population can’t maintain the infrastructure and support its operation (hence the centrality of schools). Distance becomes “far” or is perceived to be when families build settlements dispersed from the center, which in planning lingo is not the best use of space. I guess Town Planning folks are brought in because as in the case of the Philippines the Building Official cum town planner supposedly is in charge of containing the configuration of settlements (according to the physical plan) via issuance or non-issuance of building permits. But what’s happening is people are building their houses or settling everywhere (without a coherent pattern) because the Building official cum town planner is not doing his or her job. Essentially, the reason why schools and settlements are getting farther and farther apart is that there is no town or village settlement plan to start with and building permits are not being sought nor is compliance enforced. DepEd or DSWD or private sector ECCD providers don’t know this because they’re not experts in town or settlement planning which is why it matters that like Indonesia people from Town Planning should be involved: the highest and best use of the land/space needs to be the backdrop in educational facility and service provision planning. Turf war is no help at all.

Indeed, it takes a village to raise a child. If I may add, it takes a loving, caring, and competent community to raise a child well. The ECCD sector is one of the more progressive sectors that has shown incredible growth since the enactment of RA 8980, locally, and ECCE/ECCD adoption among ASEAN countries, and I can say it’s because of members of this community who have stayed true and passionate about young children (despite the downs). Philippine society is a better society fit for children because of them.

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