Denying a child a proper start in life is the most basic injustice. It’s the kind of injustice that doesn’t need an argument. Anyone who sees a child’s potential and optimism shrinking because they aren’t given the chance to learn, to play, to communicate, to grow, just knows it is wrong.
That injustice has been the enemy throughout my working life. I fought it locally as a childcare officer and social worker in South London. I fought it nationally in my time in government, creating Sure Start with David Blunkett which transformed the life chances of hundreds of thousands of young children across the UK. And I’ll continue the fight in London if I become Mayor. It’s the experience of inequality in childhood which defines so many children’s lives and becomes an unalterable path.
But the desire to give children the care and support they need in their early years is not exclusive to the UK. It is a language which is understood globally. From rural Malawi to Brixton, the ambitions of mothers are expressed in the same way.
Last Sunday, the United Nations set out its new Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years. This is the world’s plan to take on poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. And, for the first time, it includes a specific commitment to improve the early years of children’s lives. By 2030 every boy and girl should have access to high-quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.
The need for this commitment is unarguable. Around the world 6.6 million children die before their fifth birthday every year, and 165 million children are stunted because they don’t get enough proper food to eat. Hundreds of millions more won’t ever reach their full potential because the damage that happens before a child is three years old often lasts for the rest of their lives.
How did it come that such a tender objective found its way into the often impenetrable language of the United Nations?
In 2012, Ivan Lewis, then shadow Secretary of State, asked me to take the principles of Sure Start in the UK to the heart of the UN negotiation of the new Sustainable Development Goals. Joining forces with exceptional leadership at Unicef, the Wave Trust, Sightsavers and other charities around the world, we launched a global campaign to raise awareness of the importance of early childhood and ensure that access to early childhood care, services and education were included in the new global development goals framework.
Ivan and I travelled to Malawi to see how early childhood services could be developed, and how much more could be done in one of the poorest countries in the world. We set up a global network of early childhood practitioners and experts to put pressure on governments, and ran a global petition calling for early years development to be part of the new framework. We took our message to everyone whose voice would be another source of influence and we persuaded health ministers across Africa and governments around the world that early years development had to be at the centre of the new development framework. In June 2014 I travelled to New York to present our global petition to senior officials at the UN. We convened a conference of leaders from around the world who shared the passion for change.
Everyone said it would be impossible. But we did it anyway. On Sunday we saw the results, when the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon confirmed that the world had listened and was going to act. The success of governments’ aid programmes will be judged by their impact on children’s early years. It’s a commitment which brings us all together, globally, in our desire to see the best for our children.
This is politics at its best: starting from fundamental values, digging deep into an issue to understand its root causes, and bringing people together to create pressure for change. It is hard work getting things done. It takes a long time, with countless setbacks along the way. But in the end, the potential impact on people’s lives makes it all worthwhile.
Securing the announcement is only the beginning. Once the Sustainable Development Goals are ratified in September they need to be implemented by governments around the world. The British Government has a vital role to play in providing the resources and expertise to make a reality of the commitment to early childhood development.
So we should celebrate the success of our campaign for a global commitment on early childhood development. It’s a great start, but there’s a lot more work to do before it leads to great starts to the lives of children everywhere.