Responding creatively to the ECD sector COVID crisis

A report by Ilifa Labantwana shows that the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has put 1.8 million children are at risk of not being able to access ECD services if programmes are unable to reopen. This is not only affecting their education, but many of these children rely on the centres for meals, meaning hunger increases, putting them at a further disadvantage. Photo by Bart Love, May 2018

The ECD Working Group of the C-19 People’s Coalition recently released a statement that the early childhood development (ECD) sector is at risk of being “decimated by government inadequacy” during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. That statement may appear harsh, but it holds a lot of water.

The impacts of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the ECD sector have been devastating – even more than the effects on the schooling system, which is more formalised and better supported by the state. They will continue to be felt for some time unless appropriate action is taken and urgent support provided. Two recent surveys show a sector in deep trouble. The widely reported NIDS-CRAM wave 2 study found that ECD attendance dropped to an 18-year low of just 13 percent by mid-August. This “dramatic contraction” is due to the double blow of household factors such as lost employment, reduced income and parental fears of children contracting COVID-19, coupled with widespread site closures due to the prohibitive cost of complying with Department of Social Development’s reopening protocols.

Another recent survey conducted by Ilifa Labantwana and others found that over 100 000 jobs in the ECD sector may already have been lost and 1.8 million children are at risk of not being able to access ECD services if programmes are unable to reopen.

However, it must be understood that it was the condition of the early learning system in South Africa prior to COVID-19 pandemic that aggravated the extent of damage to the sector. Most ECD programmes are unable to obtain formal registration due to the stringent and complicated registration process required by the government. The bulk are informal micro subsistence based enterprises operated by women, providing not only a livelihood to thousands of ECD practitioners, day mothers, playgroup facilitators and many other workers that keep the ECD sector functioning, but also an invaluable service to households who rely on the ECD sector to look after and provide daily food, education and safety for their children while they are at work. Without childcare available, the burden of care falls primarily on women – impeding their ability to take up income earning opportunities. Ilifa Labantwana’s survey found that less than 15 percent of surveyed ECD programmes received any income from fees during lockdown, and that only 22 percent received a subsidy from the DSD. Not surprisingly, this had left the vast majority unable to pay staff salaries and operating costs significantly contributing the severe attrition in the workforce and inability to re-open.

With this scenario in mind, Ilifa Labantwana has, since early in the lockdown, mobilised resources and partnerships in order to assist the ECD sector to reopen and recover from the impact of COVID-19. It secured R36 million in funding from four funders, the ELMA Foundation, Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment, the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation and the DG Murray Trust. With these funds, it has initiated an ambitious ECD COVID response project, working with three NGO partners: The Unlimited Child, SmartStart and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), who among them support thousands of ECD sites around South Africa.

The project has a dual purpose: immediate relief and support for struggling ECD managers, staff and programmes in order that they may survive, comply with the COVID-19 reopening regulations, and reopen; and a longer-term aim of demonstrating the role ECD sites can play in the provision of nutritional support to children aged 0-5.

The project is providing support to 1 859 unregistered ECD sites spread across South Africa, and food support to 3 488 ECD staff and more than 43 400 children. Through the three NGO partners, participating ECD sites are receiving support packs to ensure they can comply with reopening protocols. Along with basic compliance materials and support, the participating ECD sites are also being assisted to access enough clean water for them to ensure cleanliness and health compliance.

A major pillar of the project, which runs from October – January 2021, involves the provision of electronic vouchers, using the CoCare voucher platform that allows a recipient to redeem a voucher received by SMS at any local Flash or Kazang trader, typically small “spaza” shops located in most low-income settings. Each participating ECD site is receiving a regular “site voucher” – the value of which is based on the number of children normally attending the programme. ECD programme managers redeem these vouchers at local shops, purchasing nutritious foods which are then provided to children attending the ECD programme. In the event that a programme remains closed, ECD staff will provide either cooked food or weekly hampers to children normally in the programme. The aim of this crucial aspect of the project is not only to provide highly nutritious foods to children during this time, but also to test ways in which ECD sites can become important “nutrition hubs”, with new local food supply chains being created in the process. ECD staff are also receiving support during this time through monthly vouchers.

Government’s recent announcement of an additional R380 million into the sector to support the incomes of the ECD workforce will promote the re-opening of ECD programmes but it must be provided in a way that simply and effectively reaches the workforce serving the poorest children so that these ECD sites can re-open. Ilifa Labantwana is seeking to learn from this project and will feed these lessons into new policy approaches which can be adopted by the government. As serious as this crisis is, it provides a valuable opportunity to innovate and demonstrate new approaches that could help to revitalise the ECD sector and ensure working systems of nutritional and early learning support for young children in the future.

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 is a social anthropologist with almost 20 years of experience in human development research and implementation in southern Africa. He is working with Ilifa Labantwana to manage the ECD COVID-19 Response Project.


This op-ed was first published by the Daily Maverick on 06 November 2020. Read it here.