Arab Children are Being Left Behind

The Arab world lags behind in its investment in early childhood development (ECD). While there have been improvement in our children’s health, many suffer as a result of insufficient nutrition and education. Failure to invest in ECD now can have long-term negative results and make the region less competitive in the future.

Investing in a child’s health, nutrition and education during the first 6 years of life is beneficial for individuals and society as a whole.

Being healthy is crucial to surviving the early years

The health of children can be measured by their likeliness to live through their first five years of life and their access  to immunization.

Infant and Child Mortality:

Early death naturally represents the ultimate loss of a child’s development. Over the past 20 years, the Arab world has made considerable progress in reducing early deaths. Between 1995 and 2015, infant mortality (dying during the first year of life) and under-five mortality both decreased by 43%. Despite that, the region still lags behind other regions. In 2015, 2.5% of children in the Arab world died before reaching their first birthday, and 3.3% died before the age of 5. Meanwhile in both Europe and the Americas, this is around 1% for both indicators.


The full immunization of children plays a great role in decreasing their mortality and improving their immunity. The Arab world is approaching full immunization coverage, with 85% of children fully immunized against key diseases such diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and measles. We are performing slightly better than the rest of the world (82%) and are close to other high-performing regions, such as the Americas (91%) and Europe (88%).

Nutrition is critical for physical and mental development

Well-nourished children are able to grow and develop to their full potential both physically and mentally. Malnutrition results from deficiencies, excess or imbalance in the intake of food and nutrients. Looking at children’s growth, weight and nutrient intake can help indicate their nutritional level.


Children who are stunted are shorter than is average for their age. Stunting is a direct result of undernutrition. A stunted child may struggle to learn, putting them at a permanent disadvantage in school and later life. At least 20% of Arab children are stunted. While this is close to the world average (23%), it is considerably higher than other regions such the Americas and the Western Pacific (7%).


A number Arab children are malnourished because of being overweight. The Arab world has the highest prevalence of under 5 childhood obesity in the world. This means that more of our children are at risk of developing diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Iodine Deficiency:

Iodine is one of the most important nutrients for brain development. Iodine deficiency can cause a range of intellectual, motor and hearing deficits. Iodine consumption in the Arab world is among the lowest in the world. Only 43% of houses have access to iodized salt – the key source of iodine in our diet. The world average is 75%!

High quality care and education is crucial for development

The type of care that children receive both inside and outside the home is critical to their survival and development. This can be measured by children’s exposure to violent discipline and their attendance of preschool.

Violent discipline:

While discipline is important in teaching children self-control and acceptable behavior, violent discipline can cause long-term damage to children. Violent discipline involves both physical punishment and psychological aggression. Studies have found that children who were exposed to violence growing up, are more likely to use violence to resolve their conflicts. Violent discipline is highly prevalent in the Arab world, with 80% of children being exposed to it.

Preschool Attendance:

Access to good-quality education outside the home is crucial in providing children with the basic cognitive and language skills they need to do well in school. Preschool also helps children develop their social and emotional skills. Once again, children in the Arab world lag behind in their access to early education. Only 25% of Arab children attend preschool – the world average is twice that number. As such, 3 out of 4 children in our region are missing out on this important development opportunity.

Invest in our children now for a better tomorrow

A large proportion of Arab children are being left behind in poor health, nutrition and education. As a result, their physical, cognitive, psychological and social development is negatively impacted. On a societal level, this will also impact the region as a whole. In 25 years time, 20% of the region’s workforce may be less productive than it could have been. This will also make the region less competitive in the future.

Discover more on the role parents play in improving their children’s early development


World Bank. 2015. Expanding Opportunities for the Next Generation: Early Childhood Development in the Middle East and North Africa.
WHO. 2015. Global Health Observatory data repository: Child mortality rate – Probability of dying per 1 000 live births.
WHO. 2017. Global Health Observatory data repository: Immunization.
WHO. 2017. Malnutrition Fact Sheet.
UNICEF, WHO, World Bank. 2017. Joint Malnutrition Estimates, May 2017 Edition.
UNICEF. 2008. Sustainable Elimination of Iodine Deficiency.
UNICEF. October 2014. Global Databases: Household Consumption of adequately iodized salt.
UNICEF. MaAy 2016. Global Databases: Violent Discipline.
American Psychological Association. 2006. Parental expectations, physical punishment, and violence among adolescents who score positive on a psychosocial screening test in primary care.
10 UNICEF. May 2016. Global Databases: Early Childhood Education.