The Road of Early Childhood to National Plans for Recovery and Resilience – a successful advocacy effort in Italy
COVID-19 pandemic is putting all countries in Europe under a hard test now: the ‘early childhood’ test, or in other words, the ‘long-term, visionary investment in the youngest generation’ test. While across the European Union, Member States are preparing and submitting their National Plans for Recovery and Resilience (NPRR), we are learning about different advocacy pathways and strategies undertaken by ISSA Members in their efforts to convince country politicians that there is no better way to address inequalities, the vicious circle of poverty and exclusion, unless we start from the very beginning: the early years. Recently, we have learned about the successful advocacy work carried out by our Member in Italy, the Centre for Child Health and Development (Centro per la salute del bambino) and their contribution to an important achievement: the Italian National Plan for Recovery and Resilience includes financial investment in early childhood services. Today we are talking to Director, Centre for Child Health and Development Giorgio Tamburlini about this achievement.
Giorgio, what is the history of and what was the main driver for this advocacy effort focused on bringing more public attention to and investment in early childhood?
Somewhere between May and June 2019 a small group of seven or eight people – mostly academics – met at the Department of Sociology of the University of Milan. The aim of the meeting was to start an alliance to advocate for children and families. I remember that we said we should advocate for children and for their families, but with a vision that does not put this investment in a possible contradiction with other investments. We all agreed that families need to be supported as well, not only through day care services. The home environment is extremely important, especially in the first three years of a child’s life, and we need to support families too, and not just those families that have very serious problems, but all the families.
We wanted to have a proposal that could fit well into a broader view of the country development. There were many disciplines represented in the core group – mostly from political science, sociology, education, statistics, demographics. I was the only one from the health sector at that time. From there we moved to establish an advocacy network, Alleanza per l’Infanzia (Alliance for Childhood), and writing a sort of Manifesto.
We said that the country had an extreme need to invest more in children and their families for a number of reasons – it’s an issue of rights, an issue of social and economic development, an issue of demographics and so on. We sent this Manifesto to a variety of entities. We discussed about involving the main trade unions and we agreed that they should be on board, as they represent an important constituency. We also addressed the main NGOs, from Save the Children to many others that may not be international, but nationally very well-known and some professional bodies representing educators, paediatricians, psychologists. We immediately gathered quite a few supporters around the Manifesto, and, by the end of October 2019, we gathered more than 12 organizational adhesions, including the main trade unions, which was quite important as they are representing millions of people.
We then had two meetings in Rome where we decided to develop a more elaborated version of the Manifesto and focus on three main directions. One direction regarded the cash transfers to families – the fiscal policy etc. In Italy, the situation of cash transfer was very fragmented. We asked for one comprehensive measure for all families with children up to 18 or 21 years. The second strategic direction was regarding the day care services for children aged from birth to 6, asking for increased access and affordability. The third direction was about the parental leave - for mothers and fathers, and particularly for the fathers because it was so marginal. We devoted specific seminars to the three thematic drivers so that gradually we started to define an articulated analysis and proposal for each of the three directions. Gradually, other partners joined us and now there are almost 30 of them.
We know that in Italy, back in 2015 an important decree which provided a legal framework for vertical integration in the early childhood education and care system for children from birth to 6 years of age passed. A great step for many early childhood systems. How does this advocacy effort build on an already important policy change?
Well, it is very important, because the decree provided the legal framework, but then you need to put money and the know-how to implement the policies, and that has not happened evenly across the country. For example, the access to day care for children aged under 3 in Italy, on average, is 25%. This is not acceptable; the number should be higher. There are enormous regional disparities between the Center, North and South, with the South being much more disadvantaged.
This is the important achievement that I see with the NPRR. It indicates the financial resources that are to be allocated to make the policy work across the country. Secondly, the integration between birth to 3 and 3 to 6 services has to be built on models and mechanisms. In the 50 pages report which we submitted in collaboration with another network focusing on Education to the Parliament, there are also some detailed suggestions about who should lead the process, what should be the role of the municipalities or the regions and what kind of personnel they should hire, what should be their qualification, what is the typology of their contracts and so on. All these issues are absolutely crucial. One of the last steps was to indicate very clearly that this vertical integration within the education system should also have a component of horizontal integration with the social and health sectors. This is one of the Centre for Child Health and Development’s specific area of interest. We mainly deal with the health sector and we are increasingly working with the education, the social and the cultural (libraries, museums) sectors.
From the outside the work of the Alliance appears to be a great achievement. Do you also see it as an achievement talking into consideration all the work done?
The first achievement is the fact that we have created the Alliance for Childhood itself, that it is there. The second achievement is the fact that through this Alliance we started to work quite closely with parliamentarians. In mid-2020, an interparty group devoted to infancy was formed between the main parties representing the majority from the past government. We started having quite frequent meetings between parliamentarians and the members of the Alliance, thus strong supporters inside the Parliament.
Was this interparty group created because of the lobby that the alliance has made or was there an intrinsic motivation from the politicians’ side to do it?
I think it was both, and maybe more the second. There are two parliamentarians who have been particularly active: one is a leader of the Paediatrician Association, the other one a former Save the Children officer, so they both have a whole professional history focusing on childhood behind them. We still are having meetings together. At the end, based on our work they produced a document that was ultimately presented in a Parliament on April 14th and it passed. The final text reflected all the key points that were made in our well documented proposal. The Parliamentary passed motion led to having in the NPRR provisions regarding early childhood education services with an allocated budget of 4.6 billion euros, and other substantial investments for social cohesion programmes and services, particularly for vulnerable families and disadvantaged areas. The NPRR was approved by the Italian Parliament on April 28 and sent to the European Commission.
Please tell us more about the important steps that that you undertook from having a Manifesto to developing a well-documented report ‘Investing in early childhood’ that led to a Parliamentary motion. What were the discussions and how this worked out in the Alliance itself? Because I suppose that it was kind of a joint work that was put together, right?
Yes, absolutely. I should mention a few things. First, that the initial group included at least three or four people that are very well-known and have a high professional reputation. Besides, since the beginning, the idea was to produce something very solid: a good articulated documented with very precise proposals. The document was prepared by dividing us in working groups. I was for example in the working group that was looking at the services for early childhood and parents. Each working group had a wide participation from different actors, including the technical secretariats of the trade unions that were taking care of the of the aspects regarding the personnel, which was very important. I think that each section had about 20 to 25 different people representing different constituencies working on it.
Was the Alliance created only for persuading Government to allocate funds in the early childhood and to provide guidance on spending to state actors? Or was the Alliance going to be also a watchdog who observes and monitors how the policy will be implemented based on the funds allocated?
I don't think we are capable of monitoring every step in the way, it would require a lot more human resources than we have. The watchdog for the time being is on the political process. However, equally important is that the report we produced is a powerful source of inspiration for the local administrators and local actors, even beyond the legislation and any political process. There are clear directions there regarding the know-how. For example, a municipality may decide that they would like to do something in a specific direction with the resources they have and with the partners they found the locally. They could get enough insight regarding a framework for action from our report.
I could say that several parts of the documents could be applicable even without major additional resources because it talks about integration and things that you can do even with very little money. Certainly, we need a robust injection of money, particularly for expanding the day care offer. It’s an infrastructure issue, although the main cost is the personnel. It is an investment. You invest in young people, in female employment, in the South. Thus, all three requisites are met. But we have two concerns. The first is that the parties typically would like to put more money there where there is an immediate political gain, such as the cash transfer, and less where the gain takes more time. The second risk is the fact that investments in early childhood compete with other kinds of investment such as industry, technology, energy, communication, etc. which have very powerful lobbies behind.
Is the document that you developed public, can be accessed by local and regional actors?
Yes, it is published on the websites of the different organisations in Italy (see www.csbonlus.org and www.allenazinfanzia.it), and it has been presented publicly in a series of webinars. It has an executive summary in English.
Would you say that you are optimistic about the future?
The approval of the NPRR with a section devoted to children and a specific budget allocation is something that we would have not expected just a year ago. I don't know whether in the near future we will really achieve what we would like to, or less, but we will know that over the next 3-4 years. It should be stressed that it is not only a matter of policy development and resource allocation. A lot will depend on the capacity of the Government, of the regional and municipal administrations to implement the NPRR.
What would be the indicator for saying that this is a big success?
Besides the success represented by having a specific section in the NPRR devoted to the importance of investing in children, the main success is that we have now resources particularly allocated for ECEC services, though they are less than what we asked for.
What would be the advice is that you would give to other ISSA Members who are embarking on advocacy?
Two main pillars: one is the strong civil society engagement and representation which should not be limited to the usual champions – the experts that usually speak. We managed to do this with a strong support from the trade unions and the big NGOs. The second, I would say, is the engagement of parliamentarians. You have to build a strong link with whoever you think is necessary for your case. I would personally suggest having the professional associations on your side. Usually, paediatricians are not very powerful, but some of them are usually well-known in the country. Local administrations (regional and municipal) have a big role too and they should be highly involved at the local level.
How do you think that your organisation has benefited from this effort?
Our organisation benefited because we got a better positioning on the national arena. This is due to two main things. One is our contribution to Alliance and to the parliamentarian work. Another one is because of what we are doing in the field. We are recognised as an organization that has the feet on the ground country-wide and therefore a relevant expertise when it comes to implementation.