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Building an Inclusive Economy

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Building an inclusive economy: why preventing violence and supporting families is essential – A Joint Submission by Institute for Security Studies and Save the Children South Africa

By Dr. Chandre Gould (Senior Research Fellow, ISS) & Dr. Celia Hsiao (Research Manager, SCSA)

A recent study commissioned by Save the Children South Africa (SCSA) found that in 2015 the loss in human capital due to experiences of violence during childhood in South Africa was estimated to be approximately R238 Billion (or 6% of the GDP)[1]. The lesson from this is that preventing children from witnessing and experiencing violence, and ensuring that they have a good start in life is critical to building an inclusive economy in the medium to long term and will have a direct and significant impact on our country’s GDP growth.[2]


Why the first 1000 days are critical

Between conception and two years a babies brain will grow to 80% of its adult weight; also in this time connections in the brain are created at a rate of I million per second, faster than at any other time in our lives. The ability to regulate emotions is also learnt in the first few months of our lives, and it is this ability that enables us to cope in the world and establish meaningful relationships with others. Emotional regulation depends on a healthy, nurturing bond being established between a baby and their primary caregiver.[1]  Thus during this period there is enormous potential for creating a strong foundation for the rest of our lives.

But, just as we can positively affect children’s lives in this time; if things go wrong in the first few years it can set a child back permanently. Babies and infants are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect than older children and that means we need to give particular attention to ensuring their safety. Abused or neglected children, who don’t have a healthy bond with a caring adult, are at risk of not coping at school; becoming the victim or perpetrator of violence and are likely to struggle later in life; so too are babies who are exposed to ‘toxic stress’ which includes exposure to alcohol and other drugs in the womb, violence in the home; or whose caregiver is depressed or mentally ill.


Neuroscience research shows that rapid brain growth occurs in the early years of life and that experiences of violence, abuse, and neglect directly and permanently impact the architecture and chemistry of the developing brain. Such early damage can gravely deplete children’s cognitive capital, the set of intellectual skills (communication, problem solving, decision making) that determine their ability to work and contribute to the economy. It is after all human capital that drives a nation’s economy and growth.

The study by Save the Children South Africa on the economic burden of violence against children clearly demonstrates the cost of inaction. Not investing sufficiently in preventing violence against children contributes significantly and directly to lowered human capital, which severely impinges on our country’s economy.

Making sure that babies and infants get the right kind of care, nutrition and stimulation in the first 1000 days of their lives is the best chance we have at breaking cycles of poverty and violence, increasing the number of young people who complete school, reducing inequality and building a healthy future. This is the time of our lives when we have both the greatest potential and are most vulnerable to the effects of toxic stress, abuse and neglect.

Children who experience neglect and abuse, and who are not cognitively stimulated in their infancy are likely to go on to repeat the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage. This is exacerbated by exposure to violence in the home, stressed parents, harsh corporal punishment at school and at home, bullying at school. Together this creates a toxic mix that massively reduces human potential and lays the basis for continuing cycles of violence.

Economist and Nobel laureate, James Heckman, has made the economic case for investing in children’s lives. He has shown that investments in interventions that support the cognitive and socio-emotional development of disadvantaged children ages 0 – 3 years yields a significantly higher return in terms of human capital than investments later on in life, such as through youth employment strategies.[3]

In short, there is an abundance of scientific and economic evidence showing that if we seek to increase human capital, which is necessary for the realisation of the development goals of the National Development Plan and the Integrated Urban Development Framework, our investments need to be made in infants and children.

In order to make this shift to enable development we need to ensure that budgets at national and provincial level are allocated for primary prevention programme delivery.

Currently in South Africa, the budget for prevention and early intervention services makes up less than 1% of the combined national and provincial Department of Social Development budgets. Moreover, all provinces, with the exception of Gauteng, show a decrease in allocations to prevention services over the medium-term expenditure framework for the period of 2016/2017 to 2018/2019[4].

Investments in early prevention yields higher returns compared to investments in response services not only because remedial services to address violence after it has taken place are more costly than initial preventative measures, they are also much more difficult and resource intensive. On the other hand investments in prevention (such as positive parenting programmes, good quality ECD, early cognitive stimulation programmes and programmes that support the nutritional and emotional needs of pregnant women) eradicate the problem before it even occurs, thus ensuring that violence is not transmitted from one generation to the next. The potential long term economic benefits of investing in prevention are thus far greater than spending on interventions to address the effects of violence after it has happened.

Shifting from the current response model to an ideal model with a reduced need for response requires that we begin investing in a range of interventions. These should include awareness raising about the importance of positive parenting and parenting support; encouraging and enabling the identification and reporting of early warning signs and cases of abuse. However, awareness raising campaigns on their own have limited impact on entrenched behaviors and cannot ameliorate the impact of multiple adversity. Studies by the Institute for Security Studies and the University of Cape Town have shown that levels of parenting stress are extremely high in South Africa. Parents who are stressed are more likely to be neglectful or abusive towards their children. Thus interventions to support parents and teach skills, such as positive discipline are critical to ensuring that children grow up to reach their potential. Over time, as prevention programmes begin to change behaviour the need for statutory intervention and responsive will also diminish.[5]

Both the National Development Plan and the Integrated Urban Development Framework recognise the importance of investing in social protection, health care and education to realise human potential. This is a necessary expenditure if we are to ensure that in the next ten to twenty years a greater number of South Africans are able to access jobs or create their own, and live healthier, happier lives. Until now the focus has been on job creation and the pressure is on to support higher education. Both are necessary and important, but it is not necessarily the case that improving access to job markets and services will increase safety or improve the conditions for children, as we would expect or hope. Save the Children South Africa’s costing study estimated that South Africans who were physically abused as children earn on average 11.7% less a month than someone who was not physically abused, and 9.2% less if he/she was emotionally abused as a child.  This is critical South African evidence to support that in order to improve human capital and earnings, we need to address the root causes and start early. By only investing in tertiary education and job creation for young people we are negating evidence and research that clearly demonstrates the need for invest in young people’s early lives which have a major impact on achieving social inclusion and social cohesion.

Our challenge as a country is to reduce entrenched inequality, reduce violence and increase safety. We can do these simultaneously. But, doing so requires a radical shift of attention and investment into the very early years of children’s lives. Some of the ways in which this can be done includes:

  • Encouraging corporates and large businesses to establish in-house, high-quality ECD centres by offering them tax advantages for doing so.
  • Increasing the length of maternity and paternity leave through an amendment to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and ensuring that fathers have as much time as mothers do with their infants.
  • Provide tax incentives for companies that offer evidence-based parenting programmes to their staff during working hours.
  • Ring-fence budget allocations for the Departments of Health and Social Development for support to pregnant women and for positive parenting programmes to support families.

In November 2016, Save the Children South Africa launched a 5 year Violence Against Children Campaign with a key focus on prevention and we would like to work with Treasury to finding solutions in resourcing prevention work in South Africa. Furthering this work, The Premier of Gauteng has invited Save the Children South Africa to share the study findings at their next Executive Council Cluster meeting where we hope to work with the council in finding solutions on prevention. We also hope to work with other provinces in the country to use this evidence to inform decisions and planning around violence prevention across the country.

In addition, ISS and SCSA are conveners for a multi-sectoral forum working towards bringing together key partners from government, NGO, and academia to build momentum and support for the implementation of evidence-based programmes to prevent violence against women and children.


[1] Fang, X., Fry, D. A., Ganz, G., Casey, T., & Ward, C. L. (2016). The economic burden of violence against children in South Africa. Report to Save the Children South Africa.  Cape Town: China Agricultural University, and Universities of Cape Town and Edinburgh. A study commissioned by Save the Children South Africa.

[2] James Heckman. (2008) The case for investing in disadvantaged young children, in Big Ideas for Children: Investing in Our Nation’s Future.

[3] James Heckman. (2008) The case for investing in disadvantaged young children, in Big Ideas for Children: Investing in Our Nation’s Future.

[4] International Budget Partnership (2016). Budget: Children and South Africa’s Social Development Budget. UNICEF.

[5] Jamieson, L., Wakefield, L. & Briede, M. (2014). Towards effective child protection: Ensuring adequate financial and human resources. South African Child Gauge. Children’s Institute: UCT.