By Arnaud Conchon
La Vallé Bourdon, PORT-AU-PRINCE. 14 April 2010 – I watch in awe as a boy of 5 tinkers with a kite he made out of an old plastic bag, sticks and muddy string. Almost half of the population of Haiti is under 18 years of age and more than a million children have been touched by this disaster. Many of them are living in make-shift settlements, without parents to help promote their full development potential. Still, these children find amazing ways to create toys and invent games in an attempt to socialize with those living in the tents next to them, to get to know their new neighbours.
UNICEF’s tasks here are daunting: supporting the provision of safe water and adequate sanitation as well as safeguarding the health and nutrition of affected children. Many of these children have lost a parent during the quake and if they are still alive, they are too busy trying to meet basic survival needs to respond to the essential developmental needs of their children. This is also the moment to reinforce good family models which build resilience in families and prepare them for future disasters. Enabling Early Childhood Development is the key to improving school enrolment and success does not require lots of financial investments but rather skills, competencies and knowledge, and can have such a great return not only on the child, but on the entire society. In Haiti, prior to the January 12 earthquake, only 20% of children under 5 were enrolled in preschool, or approximately 590,000 children. In Haiti, the ECD needs are great. A parenting programme supporting young children was developed in Creole and used between 80s and early 90s but had not been updated since. Less than half of school aged children attended school before the quake and private institutions accounted for 80% of the education system. In terms of preschools, only 5.5% were from the public sector, and served only 4.7% of preschool aged children. This imbalance between the public and private sector induced educational inequalities at all levels (e.g. monitor-child ratio could vary from 1:20 to 1:40). Typically, preschools were lacking health and school feeding services and most of the 20,000 preschool teachers were not equipped with updated preschool teaching techniques.
Just a few weeks following the disaster, UNICEF established an ECD Task Force in Port-au-Prince, with the participation of ministry officials, civil societies, INGOs and UN Agencies in order to reactivate the network of partners that had been working on ECD in Haiti over the past couple of decades. The ECD Task Force was set up to promote a harmonized response aimed at addressing the holistic needs of young children both in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term. There is a core working group divided into 3 sub-groups including Education, Child Protection, and Health & Nutrition. With the full support of UNICEF and under the lead of the BUGEP (The Ministry’s Bureau of Preschool Education Management), the ECD Task Force has now been handed over to an inter-ministerial committee at the occasion of the school/preschool re-opening campaign.
As part of this process, an outline has been developed with ECD objectives over the next 6 to 12 months has been formulated and presented to the PDNA (Post-Disaster Needs Assessment). These objectives are in alignment with the development of a national policy paper on Integrated Early Childhood Development.
Over the past few weeks I have worked with colleagues to distribute 1,546 Early Childhood Development (ECD) Kits through variety of partners, not only in preschool settings, but also in baby nutrition tents, orphanages, child-friendly spaces, and pediatric/ baby clinics, serving over 120,000 young children. I am amazed to see how children love these kits. Today UNICEF is exploring possibilities for local production and/or procurement of these kits, setting the stage for longer term empowerment, ownership and sustainability. But positioning ECD Kits across the country is not sufficient. What counts more than the kit itself, is the ability of caregivers to organize positive and interactive environments for young children. In the interim, an activity guide for caregivers was developed to temporarily replace training, because during the acute phase of the emergency, training is not a priority and not appropriate to implement. Today, during this phase of humanitarian response, we are trying to ensure that caregivers have enough capacity to implement quality activities so that young children get the best chance to develop their full potential. For this reason, we recently began a 2-week ECD and psychosocial support training of master trainers with one of our partners. At present, 25 Master Trainers are benefiting from this course that hopes to ensure quality and scaling up of ECD interventions across the country. Each of them will then be responsible for training other trainers and contributing to the knowledge, skills and competencies of caregivers at a larger scale, starting with the use of ECD Kits.
In addition to ECD Kits, UNICEF also distributed numerous tents to serve as temporary preschool settings. We have been working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education on the list of priority preschools in the West and South East Department, beginning with those attached to the primary schools known as fundamental schools. “Fundamental” denotes a cycle of 9 years of schooling, starting at the primary level.
Today, I worry, as do many of us about the impending rainy season and what this will mean for the youngest and most vulnerable children. This country has already been weakened by 3 cyclones and a hurricane in 2008 and education indicators prior to the earthquake were among the worst in the Western hemisphere. The rains and flooding will only exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis. Relocation has begun for some of the camps but many people are living in muddy and unsanitary conditions that are only expected to worsen. Our partners in camps continue to ask for materials and training for early childhood development, for these materials lay the foundation for building more resilient children capable of coping with crisis. I am acutely mindful of the competing needs in an emergency involving the protection, well-being and development of the most vulnerable members of society. These children are Haiti’s future. Ensuring their growth and early childhood development is about building the foundations to carry forward an entire nation. I am reminded as I watch a small baby walk through the camp that baby steps are essential…
Arnaud Conchon, ECD Specialist reporting from Haiti