OPINION | Joan Nyanyuki: Investing in children isn't a luxury, it is an economic necessity

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The author argues that African governments need to put children first for better long term economic and social benefits. (Photo by: Jessica Patino/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The author argues that African governments need to put children first for better long term economic and social benefits. (Photo by: Jessica Patino/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If African governments actually took their responsibilities towards children seriously and started investing properly in children's services and infrastructure, they would actually save themselves money in the future, writes Joan Nyanyuki.


At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, depriving children of their health, education, dignity, and security damages their wellbeing. You would have thought this sine qua non was so self-evident that it goes without saying. Unfortunately, even in 2021, it seems some African governments have still not got the message.

Deprivation damages a child's mental and physical health, growth, development, educational outcomes and future employment opportunities. Its impacts last a lifetime - which in Africa is all too often cut short. Every child who suffers is an individual tragedy. Yet like the ripples on a pond, the consequences of deprivation extend far beyond each child, with negative impacts for future generations of families, communities and even entire nations. 

Investing in children has long term benefits 

The social and economic impacts of child deprivation come at a considerable cost to society. And here's the irony: if African governments actually took their responsibilities towards children seriously and started investing properly in children's services and infrastructure, they would actually save themselves money in the future. Research by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), published last week, demonstrates that ensuring children's wellbeing, especially in early childhood, has substantial long term economic and social benefits. 

Despite this compelling evidence, I am genuinely puzzled that many African countries still do not seem to recognise the benefits of investing in children. They tend to see resources spent on children as an act of benevolence - a "nice to have" - rather than an investment that will yield huge returns over a more extended period.

Africa cannot afford to neglect its children. Africa accounts for more than half the world's poor children, 53 percent of the world's under-five child deaths, and more than 54 percent of the world's out-of-school primary school age children.

READ | Opinion: Joan Nyanyuki: Education is key, Boris Johnson, but it is no silver bullet

By 2050, the continent will be home to around one billion children who, given the right life chances, could power an African social and economic renaissance. Failure to invest in their education, health and development is certain to fuel resentment and frustration - and that can only end badly. 

It is true that today's African children are generally healthier and better nourished than three decades ago. But progress has been slow and patchy, with millions still malnourished, living in poverty and without access to essential services. If the African Union and its member states hope to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - now less than ten years away - let alone Agenda 2063, they have to start making serious investments in children. The cost of inaction is unnecessarily and unacceptably high.  

Faced with such compelling evidence, why are most African governments so reluctant to act? Their collective cognitive dissonance is fuelled by multiple factors, including weak governance and accountability, prolonged conflicts and political instability, natural and climate-related disasters, underdeveloped infrastructure, poor service delivery and child-insensitive public policies. But alongside these is a cultural stubbornness to disregard children as rights holders.

Little say 

As ACPF pointed out earlier this year, the scale of violence against children in Africa is staggering, with widespread physical, psychological and sexual violence, child marriage and child labour. Children still have very little say in matters that directly affect them. Deep-rooted patriarchal norms and attitudes drive practices such as child marriage and FGM that violate women and girls' basic rights.

READ | Opinion: Child malnutrition a human rights violation and slow violence against children

It deeply disturbs me that we still have to make moral arguments for children's rights. But if that doesn't sway our governments, there is plenty of economic, social and political evidence. There is a circle which links socio-economic policies, the positive impact of these policies on children's development, and economic development and productivity over time.

Healthy and well-nourished children often have better cognitive and physical development, perform better in education, become more productive later in the world of work, earn and consume more, and save and invest more - all of which are critical for nations' economic development growth and prosperity.

Put simply, invest now in essential services for children - quality early and basic education, health, nutrition and social protection - and future generations will reap the benefits of accelerated economic growth and inclusive development. Sadly, this shift from short-term expediency to long-term investment requires a political vision and will which few African governments appear to possess. 

Dr Joan Nyanyuki, Executive Director, African Child Policy Forum (ACPF)

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