Opinionista Dudu Mkhize 25 February 2018

Educating poor children is not enough to break the cycle of poverty

Stunting can be prevented. It is one of the country’s largest solvable problems if we all lend a hand to tackle it. Others have already done so successfully – and with fewer resources than we have.

Millions of South Africans held their breath as they listened to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s maiden speech as the President of the Republic. The president’s speech was well rounded and addressed many of the deeper needs of South Africa. I was encouraged by the dream that the president has for South Africa, to build a country where a “person’s prospects are determined by their own initiative and hard work, and not by the colour of their skin, place of birth, gender, language or income of their parents.

The president also conceded that South Africa needs to educate children of the poor – starting in early childhood – to break the cycle of poverty. I cleared my throat trying to take in what the President had said as I heard the applause of a few members of the House. Will South Africa really break the cycle of poverty by educating the children of the poor?

There is a matter of extreme urgency that I had hoped the President would put at the centre of some of the deepest issues he wants to fix. Many children get to early learning facilities already destined for unemployment and poverty in adulthood. A quarter of South Africa’s children under the age of five are stunted. These children are short-for-age because they do not get enough nutritious food over the course of their young lives. As a result, they bear an unrecognised burden of cognitive and physical impairment.

Stunting remains relatively unknown to most ordinary South Africans and our leadership. Yet fighting it remains one of the most crucial steps towards building a just and equal society. With such a high prevalence of stunting in our country, investing in education, including early childhood education, will not alone be enough to reduce poverty and inequality in this country, let alone breaking the cycle of poverty. Increased investments into free education will not yield the gains we hope for if stunting is ignored. The World Bank describes stunting as a life sentence as its consequences reach far into the future and rob young people of reaching their full potential, denying them the opportunity to be productive members of society and trapping them in intergenerational cycles of poverty.

To prevent stunting, we need to start early – long before our children go to early learning centres. The most critical period in a child’s life is the first thousand days, i.e. the period from conception to age two. It is of paramount importance that stunting interventions happen within these first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Interventions into child health and nutrition are not just crucial for the (lifelong) development of our children – they are important for our development as a nation. Research shows that investing in childhood nutrition yields some of the highest economic returns. Off the back of the country’s budget speech only just yesterday, these are figures we cannot ignore, especially in light of reductions in stunting estimated to increase the GDP per capita of countries in Africa and Asia by between 4-11%.

The good news is that stunting can be prevented. It is one of the country’s largest solvable problems if we all lend a hand to tackle it. Others have already done so successfully – and with a lot fewer resources than us. For example, between 2007 and 2014, Peru reduced stunting in children under the age of five by more than 50%. They achieved this through countrywide engagement, strong political commitment and policies, coordination between government departments, as well as health professionals and NGOs focusing on specific goals and targeted policy efforts. They did it with the determination of which you, Mr President, speak.

And so, while we applaud and whole-heartedly support your call for education in early childhood, we implore you to break the cycle of poverty by getting to the root of the problem. Tackle the scourge of stunting on our country head on by prioritising maternal health; prioritising improved healthcare service delivery for the most vulnerable women and children, prioritising early (and even antenatal) registration of the child support grant, prioritising workplace support for breastfeeding mothers and prioritising zero stunting prevalence by 2030. Thuma thina Mongameli. Together let us reduce stunting, if we are to truly break the cycle of poverty in South Africa. DM

Read more: Analysis: Nutritional stunting and why SA is coming up short in Daily Maverick

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