As famous as South Africa is for its good child rights policies; it is equally infamous for the weak implementation of those policies. The disjuncture between policy intent and actual outcomes is clear in child well-being returns which don’t match the size of investment of public resources in, for example, child health and education systems.
The Draft National ECD Policy – what it means for children
South Africa has most recently developed a draft national early childhood development (ECD) policy which recognises ECD as a universal right and ECD services as central to the development of children and society as a whole.
The policy commits the government to invest sufficient public resources and develop systems to ensure it meets its public provisioning responsibilities. The ECD policy also seeks to lay a sound legal foundation for the transition from good policy intentions to effective outcomes for young children in South Africa.
The policy provides a road map for government to guarantee the universal availability of, and equitable access to all ECD services for all children, especially the most marginalised – the very youngest children, those living in poverty. It is founded on laws such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, as well as the latest evidence on what works for ensuring good early childhood outcomes. Further, it was developed through a consultative process which cut across sectors and ECD disciplines of health, social welfare, nutrition and early learning.
Hearts and Minds Implementation
The question that we face now is: is this enough to ensure effective implementation? To ensure that the responsibilities articulated in the policy are fulfilled to secure good ECD outcomes for all children from conception, especially those living in poverty, in under-serviced areas and those with disabilities?
Given what we have learned from our past experiences as to what makes for an effective policy or programme of action, the answer to this question depends on:
- Collective ownership of the policy, and acceptance of assigned responsibilities by all role players in all branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial), at all levels of government (national, provincial and local), within all departments, and by civil society;
- Acceptance by all role players of the policy as an authoritative statement of their collective commitments; and
- Effective accountability mechanisms within parliament, the courts and human rights structures that will monitor compliance and ensure that the assigned public provisioning responsibilities are duly fulfilled.
In short, what is required is the “hearts and minds” adoption of the policy, not only at a national and provincial executive or administrative level, but also at a political, judicial, civil, local and traditional leadership level.
Lack of Input and Understanding Pose Challenges
So, where we are now? Up until this point, there has been consultation on the policy, but this has mostly been at a national and provincial executive or administrative level and with civil society. There has been little, if any, parliamentary, local government or traditional leadership engagement in the development of the policy, or more broadly, in cultivating an understanding at these levels of the key role these stakeholders have to play in planning, implementation and accountability for the public provisioning responsibilities in the draft ECD policy.
There is evidence of low levels of understanding among these stakeholders of the rights and developmental imperative of ECD, the roles and responsibilities of different departments, and how they can and should actively support the shaping of a strong national ECD framework for the country.
For example, many of local government’s Integrated Development Plans remain silent on ECD and a review of parliamentary debates and committee deliberations reveal that there is little, if any, ECD debate and interrogation on matters that are of critical importance to the optimal early development of children in South Africa.
The draft policy has been through a process of executive or administration scrutiny and public commentary, but has not yet been subjected to robust parliamentary, local government or traditional leadership involvement or scrutiny: processes that are critical to secure the necessary levels of understanding, political buy-in and accountability – if the policy is to be an effective vehicle for securing young children’s rights and development.
The Road Ahead
The next phase of the policy development process must include robust engagement with key political leaders, structures and institutions. However, this will require preparatory and ongoing advocacy by civil society, the technical experts, and the administrative government structures which have driven the process so far, to cultivate a deeper understanding of the rights and developmental importance of ECD.
It is essential that this advocacy take place among parliamentarians at a national and provincial level, local government leaders, administrators, and traditional leaders, amongst others.
This is necessary so that ECD can become a routine item on the political and leadership agenda of the country, and so that there is meaningful and robust engagement with, and ultimately ownership of the national ECD policy by all responsible role players.
The Policy Post is written by Patricia Martin. Patricia is the director of Advocacy Aid, a consultancy that provides advocacy support to the development sector. She has worked as a child rights advocate and policy analyst for more than a decade and has a special interest in ECD policy and programme development and monitoring.