Early Childhood Policies in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and Opportunities

posted by / Wednesday, 14 January 2015 / Published in ARTICLES, Latest posts

By: Michelle Neuman and Amanda Devercelli


In recent years, increasing priority has been placed on the development of national intersectoral early childhood development (ECD) policies in Sub-Saharan Africa. This paper reviews the role of national ECD policies to promote young children’s access to key early childhood services. We discuss the proliferation of national ECD policies in Sub-Saharan Africa in the last decade and argue that for most countries, these documents can be useful, but are not sufficient without proper implementation and enforcement. We look specifically at the different ECD policies and institutional arrangements in four countries in East Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and draw out some cross-country lessons for moving from policy development to implementation.

Key words: early childhood development, policy, implementation, legal frameworks, Africa



Recent brain research suggests the need for holistic approaches to learning and development, recognizing that children’s physical and intellectual well-being and socio-emotional and cognitive development are all interrelated (Grantham-McGregor et al., 2007). Children’s school readiness depends not only on their cognitive skills, but also on their physical, mental and emotional health and ability to relate to others (Hair et al, 2006). Development in early childhood is a multi-dimensional and sequential process, with progress in one domain acting as a catalyst for development in other domains (Naudeau, Kataoka, Valerio, Neuman, & Elder, 2011). The impact of ECD interventions will be greatest when policies and interventions are multi-sectoral and integrated, providing young children and their families with holistic programming to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential (Engle et al, 2011).

Yet, the reality for young children in developing countries is concerning. More than 200 million children below five in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of poor or delayed development due to challenges associated with poverty, including poor nutrition, excessive stress and lack of stimulation (Engle et al, 2011). Risk factors that interfere with children’s development often co-occur and can amplify each other, with poor health and nutrition and lack of school readiness leading to poor school performance. Poor school performance leads to inadequate preparation for economic opportunities and, eventually, the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty cycles (Engle et al, 2007). In contrast, positive interactions with caregivers and early learning opportunities can improve children’s health, educational, and even economic trajectories (Engle et al., 2011).

In response to the challenge of reaching children with holistic interventions, many countries around the world have developed national intersectoral ECD policies and legal frameworks. This paper explores the rise of these polices in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region where an estimated 61% of children below five are not reaching their full developmental potential, largely as a result of poverty, malnutrition, and lack of early stimulation and learning opportunities (Engle et al., 2007). We then specifically compare the status of the ECD policy development and institutional arrangements in four East African countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. We conclude with some suggestions for ensuring that policies and laws lead to better results for young children in Africa.


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