Recently, Right to Education Initiative had the honour of interviewing Mercedes Mayol Lassalle, World President of the World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP). In post since 2020, Mercedes has an extensive career in the field of education, human rights, and early childhood, and is an activist who campaigns for the right to education as a human right. We took the opportunity to ask her about various topics, including the financing of human rights and the importance of early childhood, as well as OMEP’s plans, activities, and projects.
Why is early childhood such an important phase?
For Mercedes and OMEP, early childhood has a fundamental role in the context of education, but its importance is not limited to this arena. ‘It’s indisputable that in early childhood, all the fundamental elements of human development take their shape. So this stage of life is filled with both enormous risks and great possibilities, which is why it is so important that we protect the rights of every child, comprehensively and holistically’, she said.
Mercedes highlighted the convergence of different epistemological approaches such as pedagogy, psychology, neuroscience, and paediatrics, in recognising the importance of this stage of life, and the amount of development and growth that takes place within it. However, she notes: ‘it is a stage of life that has somehow been left out of public policy and has been privatised within the family sphere. But, in order to raise a child – as the popular African saying goes – you need a tribe. We are all responsible for human lives. We are all responsible for raising children. For this reason, both the family and the nation state have a fundamental responsibility to protect the human rights of children, and to recognise that we are all born as citizens.’
Education is a complex process, inseparable from care. In order to achieve dignity, wellbeing, and full development, young children need access to adults who are available, opportunities to explore, movement, and access to cultural resources. ‘Why don’t we speak of early stimulation at OMEP? Because it is a more restrictive term than ‘education’ – though this should not be reduced to ‘schooling’ either. Because we understand that culture is a common treasure that should be shared among everyone. Education is impossible without culture.’ She notes, however, that culture is poorly distributed. ‘The cultural rights of children should be strongly protected.’
‘When one right is violated, all rights are violated’
Mercedes stressed that this understanding forms the basis of OMEP’s ethical outlook. the obligation for states to be central to the guardianship and protection of children's rights stems from the fact that there are many experiences of childhood which are marked by inequality or the absence of one or more rights. This is important, as ‘when one right is violated, all rights are violated.’ Given the interrelated and interdependent nature of human rights, OMEP stresses the fundamental role played by education ‘as a right, and as a tool for the realisation of other rights.’
‘Other rights are strengthened when education is involved,’ she says. But it’s more than this. ‘In studies of inequalities in different population groups, we can conclude that young children are the most affected. Among the poor, they are the poorest. And women who have young children are the most impoverished. We’ve seen this reaffirmed once again since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Young children have fewer resources for the cultural construction of a response and an interpretation of what is happening to them. That’s why it’s necessary to strengthen and energise rights protection policies. Education is a great strategy for this protection, but it is also an action that is dialectically and inseparably related to care: care as ethics, care as action towards children, and care as public policy towards young children’.
The history of OMEP and its vision for the future
With all of this, it is important to understand how OMEP came to be, and the context in which it developed. ‘OMEP was born in an extremely critical period in the history of humanity, but it was, at the same time, an extremely hopeful period’. OMEP was formed at the end of the Second World War, in 1948’, but Mercedes explained that ‘the idea of forming an organisation dedicated to early childhood had already begun in 1946. What is early childhood? The stage of a human life between birth and the 8th birthday. We adopted this definition, and suggested it to the Children’s Committee, which was adopted in General Comment Number 7. So, OMEP was born in 1948, under the UNESCO umbrella and with it came the creation of the paradigm that with education, science, and culture, we can build a better world.’
OMEP, with its long history, has witnessed many changes and developments to how we understand and define early childhood education. Currently, the organisation is advocating for the adoption of a ‘Decade for Early Childhood Development and Education’ by the UN. She explained to me what this decade is and how it came about. ‘For a while now, we’ve been developing a strategy to mobilise organically and be more effective in our advocacy work.’ The idea came about a few years ago, during collaboration with the United Nations on the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: ‘we saw that, when the UN adopts a decade like this, countries line up to better organise work, to invest better, and to build a more structured panorama.’
Children are the future, but they are also the present
The decade acquires increasing salience given the limited time we have left to meet the UN 2030 Strategic Goals, which, Mercedes warns, most likely will not be achieved. Failing to meet these goals will place the world’s youngest at the greatest disadvantage. She stressed: ‘children are the future – but they are also the present. We have to conjugate early childhood in the present tense – children are here, right now, with their needs, their rights, their pains, their major challenges…they’re exposed to wars, violence, pandemics, conflicts.’ She emphasises that we must act now, and that the decade represents a great opportunity to mobilise and put this issue on the political agendas of all countries.
This is where the major issue of financing comes in. According to Mercedes, the Decade could prompt a channelling of resources, which is important given that often, the problem is not how little is invested but how poorly it is invested. The Decade represents an opportunity to articulate comprehensive and holistic policies and actions, and to unite all under a plan, shared goals, and a collective panorama.
In this complex scenario, how do Mercedes and OMEP capture the attention of legislators working on this matter at a global level, and what are the key actions they are looking for those legislators to commit to? ‘Here it is very important to work locally, by which I mean nationally,’ she explains. For this, ‘OMEP has an operational advantage, given that 67 countries in 5 regions participate in the organisation. First, we must define the main objectives of the Decade of Early Childhood, which are to promote new public policies that consider the perspective of children, families, and other actors; to reconceptualise the development of early childhood care and education; to develop resources and allocate them rationally; and to ensure the high quality of education, which must be inclusive, equitable and of high quality. Once all of this is defined, the national committees, which are already in contact with governments, will work on it. The national committees have always had contacts with governments, and we need the endorsement of the governments to reach the United Nations'
However, getting countries to recognise the importance of early childhood and invest in related public policies is not easy. ‘Convincing people to put the topic of early childhood on the agenda seems simple, but it’s not’, she says. ‘One strength is the work we do to engage other organisations – such as UNESCO and UNICEF.’ UNESCO’s Global Partnership Strategy was a key focus for OMEP, but it emphasises the fundamental role of collaboration beyond strategy. ‘No organisation can do it alone. We have to inspire a greater spirit of solidarity and aspire to more if we wish to achieve great goals.’ Working with other NGOs is also fundamental, which is why OMEP works with many at the global, regional and national levels.
The role of financing: ‘no human right can be guaranteed without money’
Collaboration is fundamental, but without money there can be no solutions. ‘There is no doubt that what sits in the shadows of all of this is financing problems’, says Mercedes. Although each NGO may have its own funding and sustainability issues, the big financing problem is ‘not about the management or actions of NGOs, but in terms of funding for children, and for the concrete policies required for the realisation of rights.’
On this point she is clear: ‘No human right can be guaranteed without money. To fulfil the human rights agenda, money must be on the table. Moreover, a principle which is central to the Convention on the Rights of the Child must be respected, which is the principle of the best interests of the child. This is to say that, even when there is no money, when austerity policies are imposed, money should be invested in children and not in banks, as is often the case.’
Without a doubt, the last few months of global crisis have highlighted the yawning gaps in access to and enjoyment of human rights. Mercedes asks: ‘what is our fate as ethical human beings if we do not look after new life? What is the fate of humanity if we do not look after our children? So, we must put them first on our agendas – that’s why we need this Decade’. She goes on to add: ‘That’s why we must also fight, without naivetes, for financing.’
Steps towards solidarity
Collaborative actions between many sectors are needed to see major changes. Citing Paolo Freire, Mercedes highlights that ‘an effort must be made to for greater coherence between actions, words, and being’. With this as its starting point, OMEP wishes to make the campaign more visible, intertwining with and promoting through webinars and public opinion campaigns. In the end, ‘politicians are very sensitive to what appears in the media.’ This can be used as a tool to garner political support. But, above all, ‘solidarity is fundamental.’
Finally, we look to the future and the changes that Mercedes would like to see with regards to early childhood. She reflected: ‘to me, governance is really important. I would really like it if, after this Decade, there could be less political fragmentation and, instead, clear governance as regards public policies aimed at early childhood; governance that emphasises the impact of education, recognising that a comprehensive, articulated, combined approach between different areas of government is necessary in order to take care of young children.’ She once again the popular phrase: to educate a child, you need a tribe. In addition, ‘we need a much more integrative approach, that understands how educating, caring and raising children are inseparable social practices, and that this should be reflected in public policy design and the effective execution of public policies.
Watch the full video of the interview (in Spanish) here:
Eleanor Rosenbach is Communications Manager at Right to Education Initiative