Centre to focus on childhood development

23 April 2014

A new Centre of Excellence in Human Development has been established by the Department of Science and Technology to help address early child development challenges in South Africa.

Michael Masutha, the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, launched the new centre on Tuesday, which is to be co-hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It is one of five such centres approved by the department in the past month.

The centres have been established to promote collaborative and interdisciplinary research among research-performing institutions, and to provide high-end skills development in priority research areas.

Masutha said that early childhood development (ECD) had been declared by the Office of the President as a “national priority” in 2004. Since then, directives had been issued for municipalities to include ECD planning in their integrated development plans.

The National Integrated Plan for ECD was published in 2005, and the Children’s Amendment Act passed in 2007, helping to strengthen the government’s commitment to providing children with a better start to life.

“The centre will combine the multidisciplinary expertise of established scholars with dedicated research groups working on child development. The team’s diverse strengths will enable a better understanding of the challenges in respect of child development in South Africa, improve the country’s ability to address these challenges, and advocate for the most cost-effective interventions to give all children the best possible start in life,” he said.

According to the SA Child Gauge report released by the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, 58% of children in South Africa lived below the lower poverty line (R604 per month) in 2011. Current global trends indicate that by 2015 one in four children under the age five will suffer from stunted growth, a clear sign of malnutrition which affects children’s physical and cognitive development and capacity to learn.

The World Bank says that up to 57% of young children in developing countries have no access to preschool. In sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 83% – and children living in the poorest households are up to 10 times less likely to attend early childhood education programmes than those living in the richest.

Cheryl Potgieter, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities at University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the centre was in line with the millennium development goals and would “focus on human capacity, particularly economic participation and health, which will contribute significantly to enhancing and empowering the youth, and ultimately all South African citizens”.

The research at the centre will help improve decision-makers’ understanding of the conditions, dynamics and the efficacy of these policies for people living in poverty.