Business has an opportunity to boost profit and productivity by investing in early childhood development in the workplace. This is an example of a business strategy known as shared value, a welcome shift from the notion that business is only about profit.
Shared value enables companies to benefit while taking responsibility for social challenges. This can range from workplace programmes to prevent gender-based violence, to corporates helping countries meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
One of the best ways South African business can create shared value is by supporting parents and providing a safe and stimulating environment for their children. Many South African companies already make substantial contributions to early childhood development in the name of corporate social responsibility. But these investments sit outside the business and offer little economic return.
The shared value model would place early childhood development investments inside the business. It would help parents to create warm, supportive and stimulating relationships with their children.
Companies could provide education and care facilities at work, positive parenting training, and paid leave or counselling for staff who experience trauma and mental health problems. They could also donate excess inventory to non-governmental organisations providing these services.
This is what design and marketing company Barrows did when it recognised early childhood development as a way to invest in its future workforce and customers. The company used waste materials from its manufacture of cardboard retail display units to create educational materials that it donated to pre-schools.
Nearly 70 000 items of educational material were produced in just over a year, reaching about 138 000 children. The initiative didn’t affect the daily running of the business, and came at little or no additional cost, but it inspired employees, helped attract new staff and customers, and boosted Barrows’s broad-based black economic empowerment rating.
Why is this important? Children in South Africa experience abnormally high levels of toxic stress, the cumulative consequence of exposure to chronic poverty, systemic inequality, endemic violence and widespread unemployment.
These early childhood experiences impact brain development and social skills. Neglect, poor nutrition and exposure to violence negatively affect health, well-being and productivity, and make it more likely that people will experience clinical illness, or abuse drugs and alcohol.
This toxic stress is particularly harmful for young children, and a major contributor to poor educational outcomes. Seventy-eight percent of South African children are unable to read for meaning in Grade 6, its learners score second worst globally in maths and science, and almost 50% of those who start school never matriculate. There is now overwhelming evidence that the first few years of a child’s life will substantially determine their life course.
Without coordinated and targeted interventions, young people are thrust into an endless cycle of intergenerational poverty and deepening inequality. This results in a workforce ill-equipped for a modern economy that desperately needs skills, productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Children need warm, caring relationships and brain-building stimulation from birth. But many parents and caregivers don’t recognise their role as a child’s first teacher, don’t know how to stimulate their infants, and don’t have access to high-quality childcare.
Nationwide investments in parental support and early learning would help millions of children from poor homes to compete with their peers later in life. This is a huge opportunity for business to deliver shared value by ensuring children and their parents receive care and support during their vital early years. The immediate return is measured in staff engagement, loyalty and productivity, with reduced absenteeism.
A national government and business obsession with job creation should be accompanied by more investments in children’s emotional well-being, social skills, problem solving and future fitness for work. There are many innovative ways business can do this.
Supermarkets can for example create opportunities to turn shopping into an educational game for children and parents, something trialled successfully in the Eastern Cape. In the long term, good experiences in childhood lead to a healthier and more skilled workforce, which in turn drives economic prosperity.
Corporate resilience is greatly strengthened by aligning business and social priorities, and supporting the development of a country’s healthy children. It supports recruitment and enhances customer loyalty, particularly among millennials and a growing cohort of socially conscious consumers.
South Africa’s National Development Plan recognises that early childhood services are necessary for human development, productivity and growth, and in 2013 government doubled its allocation to early learning centres. But children’s development also needs to be encouraged in homes and workplaces by companies who recognise the value of investing in the adults of the future.
Chandré Gould, Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria
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