12/03/2013 09:28 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 06:12 BST

Healing Children's Hidden Scars of Disaster


More children are affected by disasters each year than adults, according to the United Nations. It says 100 million young people including children are affected by disasters each year.

Yet although they are the largest group and the first to bear the brunt of the impact, they are almost always last in line for the emergency aid to help normalise their lives.

As soon as there is a major disaster, the coffers of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and the Common Humanitarian Fund open. The United Nations and their INGO counterparts quickly launch Flash Appeals.

The money that is raised is earmarked to provide food, water, shelter, clothing, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene. It is often assumed that young children are in the full care of parents. But this is not always the case in disasters and so the youngest children are often forgotten. When they are supported, their physical needs are taken care of but not necessarily their psychological and other developmental needs.

In Mali, where Plan International is working, there are numerous cases of how children are haunted by the mere sound of military vehicles. Marita is one such child. The first time anyone knew that she was suffering the after-effects of the conflict in northern Mali was when an ambulance passed by. She suddenly screamed, dashed across the yard into her house and hid in a corner shaking like a leaf.

Ismael suffered with nightmares. He'd wake up shouting and screaming that the rebels were coming. He said he could hear tanks in the street, war planes flying overhead and gunfire.

It's good to have physical immediate needs taken care of but if, as humanitarian actors, we do not address the psychological and other developmental needs of this largest group, it will leave psychological scars upon these children. Providing education in emergencies is a key way to support children's return to normalcy and improve their psychosocial well-being.

The number of disasters has more than doubled in the last 30 years. The number of natural disasters, for example, rose from just under 400 in 1980 to 905 in 2012. The emergency relief aid disbursed through CERF rose from US$259 million in 2006 to US$477 million in 2012. Last year a mere 1.22% of that was for education to help children and most of this was for primary education, leaving out those under five.

This is fundamentally wrong. The international humanitarian community, the United Nations and donor governments need to seriously rethink their position on funding education and early childhood care and development in emergencies (ECCDiE).

ECCDiE is a cross-sectoral issue. It does not compete with food, water, sanitation, shelter and health, but should be an integral part of response in these areas.

We are asking donors and governments to put more money and other resources into pre-school education, nutrition and health interventions for children, but ensuring that this is paired with early stimulation and learning - as nutrition alone does not have the same effects as nutrition and early stimulation.

As a package it can work. When we set up child-friendly spaces or health posts we provide a package of psychosocial support, early learning and cognitive stimulation, hot meals, and health and hygiene lessons. But when we write a proposal for this complete package, donors will either disallow certain elements such as psychosocial support and early learning because they do not consider it to be "life-saving" or they will throw out the entire proposal.

Donors must also recognise that emergencies don't last a few weeks. Emergencies highlight the long-term development needs of a country and this is sometimes where needs are identified and long-term development work starts.

In some emergencies, such as in the case of Malian refugees in Niger and Burkina Faso, an excellent opportunity arose to provide the majority of these refugee children with early education for the first time in their lives. In Niger, one head of a Nomadic family told Plan that he wanted to stay in Niger so that his children can get an education. He said he noticed a difference in them since they had been attending pre-school classes.

As Plan launches its report Investing in the youngest: early childhood care and development in emergencies at the CIES 2013 conference in New Orleans, we are urging donor agencies, governments and the humanitarian community to increase financial and human resource investment in ECCDiE; Establish global minimum standards and frameworks for ECCDiE; and, Build a stronger evidence base for ECCDiE.