USAID CATALYZE’s Pioneering Efforts in South Africa to Ensure Lead-Free Early Childhood Centers

3 min readJan 18, 2024
Photo Credit: Stephen Andrews / Unsplash

In a resounding call for global action, USAID’s Administrator Samantha Power, speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, emphasized the urgency of addressing lead poisoning — a widely neglected yet highly tractable issue affecting one in two children in low- and middle-income countries. Against the backdrop of the staggering global impact of lead poisoning, USAID CATALYZE’s work in South Africa emerges as a pivotal initiative in response to Administrator Power’s call.

The Global Impact of Lead Poisoning:

Administrator Power revealed alarming statistics at the World Economic Forum, highlighting that lead poisoning claims at least 1.6 million lives annually, surpassing the combined mortality caused by HIV and malaria. With the majority of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries, lead poisoning emerges as a potent, yet preventable, threat. The consequences extend beyond mortality, as lead exposure can cause severe brain damage, hindering educational attainment and reducing future productivity. The economic toll is staggering, with lead exposure contributing to a significant portion of the educational gap between rich and poor countries, amounting to a $1 trillion drag on the global economy.

Administrator Power’s Advocacy for Binding Regulations:

In response to these challenges, Administrator Power advocated for a global effort to support low- and middle-income countries in implementing and enforcing binding regulations to curtail lead in consumer goods. Consumer products such as paint, spices, and cosmetics were identified as key areas for intervention. These measures have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives annually and improve educational outcomes for millions of children. Notably, Administrator Power stressed that efforts to remove lead from consumer products are highly cost-effective, presenting a significant opportunity to make a substantial impact with limited funding.

USAID’s Commitment to Lead Mitigation:

Recognizing the global scope of the issue, Administrator Power announced USAID’s commitment to join the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint, becoming the first bilateral development agency to do so. This partnership, including collaboration with U.S. government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, aims to catalyze legally-binding controls on lead paint in nearly 40 countries.

Administrator Power announced a $4 million commitment toward lead mitigation efforts, including pilot programs in India and South Africa. The focus is on supporting local governments in developing effective mitigation strategies and addressing exposure risks, particularly among vulnerable children. In South Africa, USAID CATALYZE is at the forefront of USAID’s efforts to eliminate lead exposure in South African early childhood centers through its Lead-Safe Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Activity.

What sets USAID CATALYZE apart is its commitment to a multi-dimensional approach encompassing lead testing, comprehensive mitigation efforts that incorporate both social and behavior change interventions (e.g., handwashing and cleaning protocols) as well as remediation efforts for materials in centers like paint, toys and cookware, and private sector engagement. Enabling childcare centers to access affordable loans for infrastructure improvements, collaborating with toy suppliers to ensure safety, and leveraging corporate social responsibility are just a few of the areas CATALYZE is exploring to increase private engagement. CATALYZE is well-positioned to swiftly address the call for action in South Africa, thanks to its ongoing programming. Read more here, to learn about CATALYZE’s innovative financing approaches designed to improve access and quality to ECCE in the country.

As USAID CATALYZE assesses and mitigates lead sources within ECCE centers, builds the capacity of ECCE workers, and engages with government partners, it aligns with the broader vision of President Biden and Vice President Harris for a world free from the devastating impacts of lead exposure. Through collaborative efforts, these initiatives strive to create a safer and healthier environment for children, not just in South Africa but around the world.