Last week World Number 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic facilitated a partnership between the World Bank and the Novak Djokovic Foundation (NDF) to promote early childhood development in Serbia and beyond.
In the midst of preparing for the last major of the year in Flushing Meadows, it is hard to imagine how the nine-time grand slam champion, Novak Djokovic, makes the time to do it all. However, as UNICEF’s newest Goodwill Ambassador for early childhood development, Djokovic is thankful for the opportunities he had growing up and is steadfast to creating a world where all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to realize their dreams.
It is a really big deal
The importance of early childhood development cannot be overemphasized. The White House regards expanding access to high quality early childhood education, as one of the smartest investments the United States could make as a country. Still many educated parents continue to make claims such as, “It’s not like my son’s future will be horrible if he doesn’t go to preschool or kindergarten; What’s the big deal?” The answer: It is a really big deal; in fact, it’s monumental. Research has continued to show that the early years in a child’s life are the most formative years for the human brain. This short time period is when very important academic, social and cognitive skills are shaped. Exposure to constructive learning programs during these years allow children to achieve their full potential and tackle challenging problems with confidence.
Serbia has over 2,500 locations without preschools
For nations like Serbia that are still recovering from the aftermath of war, the lack of early childhood education has unfortunately become the norm.
Whether due to poverty, poor nutrition or a dearth in teachers, only half of Serbian children aged 3-5 attend preschool. Amongst the poorest households in the country, this statistic drops to under 10%.
With children who do not reach their full cognitive potential, the vicious poverty cycle is fueled as families become even more financially unstable over time.
At the press conference at New York City, Djokovic along with World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim addressed these problems. Djokovic exclaimed that:
Serbia has over 2,500 locations without preschools”¦ Serbia’s education system faces many problems including insufficient capacity, uneven distribution of facilities, financial constraints on poor parents, inadequate understanding of the importance of preschool education, as well as a lack of diversity of programs and service providers. We hope to change that for the better.
The two leaders then announced the, “Early Wins for Lifelong Returns Initiative.“ This initiative hopes to combine the Bank’s deep knowledge and programs on early childhood development with Djokovic’s mission to increase awareness on the importance of an education for all children everywhere; especially the 219 million children that are categorized as disadvantaged due to malnourishment and poverty.
The World Bank and the NDF marks a significant moment for global development
To hit the ground running, the Bank is currently in discussion with the Serbian government about funding a project of up to $50 million dollars for early childhood development in the country. NDF will assist this project by mobilizing additional resources through its partnerships in the private sector and the donations the organization has received since its formation in 2007. This level of funding is a significant step towards improving the lives of many children in the short-run and ameliorating the economy of the country, by increasing human capital growth and productivity, in the long-run. However, the success of the project will be principally dependent on how exactly the funds are allocated.
As education is the textbook example of a public good, it is safe to assume that funds would go towards building new preschool facilities, converting underused primary schools into preschool facilities, improving access to schooling for disadvantaged children and newer training programs for teachers to improve the quality of teaching. However, as the World Bank outlines, early childhood development is also dependent on a variety of factors besides education. To name a few, children ages 3-5 need to be protected from physical danger, given adequate nutrition and most importantly adequate healthcare (viz. immunizations, oral rehydration therapy and hygiene). Enhancing childhood development is difficult due to the multidimensionality of the issue, and hence it is important for the Serbian government to devise and pilot a highly effective plan before appropriating large sums of money in any direction.
Nevertheless, the partnership between the World Bank and the NDF marks a significant moment for global development. It is reported that in one month, all member countries in the United Nations will be expected to adopt a set of international targets called the Sustainable Developmental Goals. If these countries are able to meet the outlined objectives, 2030 will feature a generation where the average child is significantly better equipped to perform at his or her true potential. I can’t predict the future, but it looks pretty bright to me.