Scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States estimate that impaired early life growth among children in developing countries slashes potential career earnings for children born each year by around US$177 billion.
If governments can address the problem, a reduction in early growth faltering could yield significant benefits from increased human capital and improved long-term health outcomes, says the research led by Günther Fink, an associate professor at the Massachusetts-based institution.
The research, published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (29 June), is the first in-depth evaluation in LMICs of the economic impact of early growth faltering — when a child’s physical growth is below the normal range for healthy children. It quantifies the “impact that early childhood development has on personal and national economic wellbeing”, says Fink.
The calculation of early life faltering considered a wide range of risk factors, which include poor nutrition, birth prematurity, low breastfeeding rates and early exposure to infection.
“Six and a half million boys and girls are missing out on even the foundations of an education.”
Karin Hulshof, UNICEF
The study does not include economic impacts of slow development of cognitive and socio-emotional skills. “The numbers [in our study] likely underestimate the true economic cost over sub-optimal early childhood development by a fair margin,” Fink tells SciDev.Net.
Based on a projection of 69.4 million years equivalent of lost educational attainment for affected children every year, the study estimated that nearly US$177 billion worth of missed earnings are caused by children’s early development shortfalls.
Huge potential losses
Such potential career earning losses can reach US$37.87 billion among 26.59 million children born each year in India, US$18.49 billion with 2.37 million children in Mexico, and US$13.33 billion with 16.48 million children born each year in China.
The study used 2010 birth totals in computing potential future career losses. Estimates of future career losses are based on the assumption that the children born in a single year participate in the labour market for 40 years, entering at the age of 20 and retiring at 60.
Among geographical regions, South Asia accounts for 35.95 million children born every year with potential career earning losses of about US$46.6 billion, the highest regional total. The 21 LMICs in the Middle East and North Africa, with 11.57 million births a year, could incur potential economic losses of up to US$14.5 billion due to early life faltering. In Sub-Saharan Africa losses are projected at US$34.2 billion, and in Latin America the amount comes to US$44.7 billion.
In South-East Asia, where 11.72 million children are born every year, estimated potential career losses due to early life faltering could run into US$17.77 billion. The potential career losses range from US$9.06 billion in Indonesia to US$2.2 billion in Thailand.
The study recommends a “comprehensive package of critical interventions improving all domains of development” to curtail the potential career earning losses among children. It argues that even a 20 per cent success rate — an estimated cost of US$100 per child each year — could still result in long-run benefits of about US$3 for every US$1 invested by governments.
“Governments are trying hard to change these outcomes, but growth is very complex so that single interventions like vitamins or supplements cannot fix the problem,” Fink tells SciDev.Net.
Preventable deaths in children
The UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) State of the World’s Children 2016 annual report, which was formally launched in Asia this week (5 July), notes that in the East Asia and Pacific region, the number of preventable deaths of children under five years of age has been halved from 1990 and 2015 to around six million a year.
While that also means that six million children under five still die every year from preventable causes — which UNICEF regional director for East Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof describes as “horrifying” still — the report also cites that “life has improved for the vast majority of children” in the region as a result of economic growth, good policies and political commitment.
“Sustainable development, begins with providing all children with a good start and a fair chance in life,”
Gaspar Fajth, UNICEF
Across the region, 96 per cent of boys and 97 per cent of girls attend primary school, while 82 per cent of boys and 84 per cent of girls attend secondary school.
“However, across East Asia and the Pacific, that small gap between 96 per cent and every child adds up to 6.5 million children who still — in 2016 — do not attend primary school. Six and a half million boys and girls are missing out on even the foundations of an education,” Hulshof points out.
Hulshof notes that the UN Sustainable Development Goals establish universally agreed targets for progress, “namely, to end poverty and hunger in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality”.
The UNICEF annual report lists five elements that are key to improvements for the “most disadvantaged and hardest to reach” children: information on affected children and the reasons for their deprivation, as well as government spending on key interventions; integration of solutions to solve different problems; innovation that will speed up change; investment in smart, strategic and cost-effective programmes; and involvement of technology and all citizens in assisting children left behind by progress.
Not always sustainable
Gaspar Fajth, UNICEF regional adviser for social policy and economic analysis, says that “fast growth is not always sustainable growth”. Sustainable development, he adds, “begins with providing all children with a good start and a fair chance in life”. One reason why children drop out or miss out school altogether is because they are poorly prepared for it, and in the region, the record is “highly uneven” in terms of support before children get to primary school, Fajth says.
He calls on policymakers and all citizens to work together towards “securing universal health, universal education and universal social protection”.
Even in basic services such as issuing birth certificates, inequities are already evident, Fajth says. While birth registration reaches almost all children in Mongolia or Thailand, it still shows “significant gaps” in most countries in the region — less than 70 per cent in Indonesia and less than 50 per cent in several Pacific island states.
“Universal support” at early childhood is particularly important but this is where “there are still large gaps in many countries”, Fajth says. “To reach out to each and every child, we need ‘universal plus’: services tailored to the needs of disadvantaged mothers and children with strong social assistance, social care services helping children who are economically or socially disadvantaged.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk
References Günther Fink and others Schooling and Wage Income Losses Due to Early-Childhood Growth Faltering in Developing Countries (American Society for Nutrition, 29 June 2016)
 UNICEF The State of the World’s Children 2016 (UNICEF, 28 June 2016)