Covid children’s project teaches crucial lessons

Many South Africans probably feel fatigued and jaded by Covid-19 and all its associated effects on our individual and collective lives. Yet this crisis continues to exact a heavy toll, not least on the wellbeing and future prospects of children. We cannot take our eye off the ball as millions of children below school going age are at risk of losing out on crucial early childhood development (ECD) services, including nutritional support.

Covid-19 had a devastating effect on the ECD programmes during the first hard lockdown in 2020. By August, the majority of programmes were yet to reopen, and child attendance had dropped to an 18-year low. 

Lacking fees from parents and other support, the government’s reopening protocols were difficult for many of the sites to comply with, especially for the majority of pre-schools or crèches that are not registered with the department of social development.

Ilifa Labantwana, with the support of several funders, launched the ECD Covid Response Project in September last year. Working with three partners that support a large network of the sites around the country, the project provided Covid-19 compliance packs and other support, including water storage, to the ECD programmes; monthly income support vouchers for the employees; and a fortnightly food voucher for each site to give nutritious meals to children. 

These electronic vouchers were sent to the site managers on SMS and could be redeemed at local spaza shops and general dealers, stimulating local food suppliers.

More than 1 700 ECD sites were able to reopen by November through this project’s support, and about 30 000 children received regular healthy meals over 18 weeks. By March this year the majority of the sites had reopened, most of the children had returned and an encouraging proportion of parents had started to pay the fees.

Participating sites appreciated the project and its outcomes as summarised in the following quotes:

“The vouchers were a critical part of our ECD centre because they enabled us to be able to open and welcome children into the centre. They bridged the financial gap as some of the parents were not making a proper salary that is able to cover the fees for their child.

“The children were better able to adjust to the new Covid-19 regulations without putting a financial strain on the parents. The food parcels that some of the children took home with them supported their families and ensured that there was food on the table.” (Ntombikayise Madlala, Durban)

“I used to buy a few items but now I can provide different meals and provide two meals a day. Poor children from the community also benefit. More children are coming to the centre and parents are recommending and appreciating.” (Nomaxabiso Fihlani, Mdantsane)

“Parents at Poplar are very grateful because the staff were receiving the voucher, the school did not pressure them to pay the school fees when they could not work due to Covid. And their children were being fed regularly because of the site level voucher.” (Charmain Johannes, Grabouw)

The project also presented an opportunity to test innovative ways of supporting the ECD sector and influencing system change for the better. Several important lessons emanate from the project:

• ECD sites, regardless of registration status, can become nutrition hubs for children. This role is crucial in the context of pervasive malnutrition, which has been characterised as a form of slow violence. The ECD site owners demonstrated high levels of commitment to using vouchers to purchase the right kind of foods to feed the children. Many even used their own funds to travel to suitable shops, and were able to cook food on-site or make up food parcels relevant to their particular situation.

l Innovative payment systems, including electronic vouchers linked to local spaza shops, can work to channel government and private sector support for nutrition through the ECD sites. These need to be flexible and context specific to work effectively.

• Most of the ECD site owners purchased nutritious foods recommended in project guidelines. But there are indications that more work is needed to reduce some of the less healthy foods such as sugary snacks and drinks, and highly processed starches and meats, which were prevalent.

• Unregistered ECD sites can comply with health and safety protocols, even in the middle of a pandemic, if provided with enough support. The government should recognise this and enable the ECD sites to register and obtain support on an incremental basis, rather than continuing to set an impossibly high bar for registration.  

• The role of NGOs is crucial in supporting sites to meet government standards, offer quality early learning and provide nutritious food to children. 

The only way to reach the children in thousands of unregistered ECD programmes is for the government and ECD-focused NGOs to collaborate to ensure a vibrant ECD sector that can help meet the rights of all children. 

As this pandemic drags on, it is crucial that the role of the ECD sector in protecting and promoting socioeconomic wellbeing continues to be elevated and supported by the public and the private sectors. Unregistered and unfunded sites, which make up the bulk of these services, are in particular need of continued support. 

Our project has shown that ECD workers running unregistered sites are committed to playing a major role in their areas through educational and nutritional provision to children. 

With support they are more than capable of fulfilling this role. 

If neglected, they face another year of uncertainty as parents continue to struggle to pay fees, ECD employees are forced to find other jobs, children have to remain at home and their parents or other adults in the household are required to forfeit work opportunities to care for them.

Ilifa Labantwana is preparing a range of products detailing the lessons learnt in this project. These will be made available on our website. 

It is our hope that these lessons will provide impetus to both short-term and long-term approaches that can create a thriving ECD sector able to cater for the needs of all children.

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Laura Brooks
Laura Brooks is the ECD financing and systems manager at Ilifa Labantwana, an organisation working to secure an equal start for all children living in South Africa through universal access to quality early childhood development. She is an economist committed to improving the lives of the country’s most vulnerable people.
Andrew Hartnack
Andrew Hartnack is a social anthropologist with 20 years’ experience in human development research and implementation in southern Africa. He worked with Ilifa Labantwana to manage the ECD Covid-19 Response Project.

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