In its annual assessment of the well-being of children, The State of the World's Children 2001, the United Nations' Children's Fund warned that the world is squandering human potential on a massive scale as hundreds of millions of children are floundering in poverty and neglect.
Carol Bellamy, Unicef executive director, said, 'The greatest tragedy is that many decision makers simply don't know how crucial those first three years of life are. But we have made great strides in understanding human development, and we are now certain that those years are vital to everything that comes later.'
According to the report, societies should invest in the early years of childhood because:
* Children have the right to get the best possible start in life and in a good start lies the guarantee for human development.
* It assures great economic returns in the future with savings on such services as remedial education and healthcare.
* It helps reduce social and economic disparities and gender inequalities.
* It offers countries the best opportunity to compete in the global economy by improving the competencies of people.
The report said, 'The time of early childhood should merit the highest priority. Yet, tragically both for children and for nations, these are the years that receive the least.'
It added, 'Breaking the intergenerational transmission of poverty, violence, disease and discrimination is not an unreachable dream if we start early enough in a child's life.'
The report found that nearly 11m children worldwide die every year from preventable diseases, 170m children are malnourished, more than 100m never see inside a school and one out of ten children have disabilities. In addition, Unicef said the lost human capacity that results from poor early childhood care was almost beyond measure.
The organisation pointed out that investment in early childhood development was essential in making any real gains in education, economic development, crime reduction and debt reduction. Unicef has also calculated that $80bn per year is needed to give every newborn child in the world a good start in life.