Anne-Yvonne Le Dain, a French deputy who is a member of the France-Senegal friendship group, flagged malnutrition as a top priority, saying it should be regarded as a form of abuse for many children.
"It’s an insidious, tenuous plague but it can kill. Mobilisation against under-nutrition is crucial for 29 million children who suffer around the world," she said.
Returning from a visit to Senegal, the MP used World Food Day to try and alert public opinion to the issue. Participants at a roundtable held at the National Assembly on Wednesday (16 October) said France was not making enough effort on malnutrition, despite its proclaimed commitment to the issue.
According to the international humanitarian organisation Action Contre La Faim, only 2% of French development aid is aimed at nutritional issues, amounting to just €160 million out of an annual €9 billion budget.
The fight against malnutrition, however, yields obvious results. "We can reduce infant mortality quickly," said Michèle Barzach, the UNICEF France president, "while the loss of GDP in Africa is estimated at €25 billion".
An estimated 2.5 million lives are lost each year due to malnutrition across the world. For children, it can have severe consequences, such as stunted growth and cognitive problems, which compromise their future.
“We must not forget that everything happens in the first 1,000 days of the formation of the brain. We need to tackle the subject with mothers and children who are the most vulnerable,” said Michèle Barzach.
In Senegal, programmes have been put in place for mothers and children to help suffering babies.
"We’ve been treating the problem seriously since 1995 with great success for 60% of the population," said Abdoulaye Ka, coordinator of a task force fighting malnutrition in Senegal, who had come to Paris to testify.
"But in some regions, particularly in the north-east of the country, we have problems of acute malnutrition that are difficult to solve, and whose causes are complex to identify. Often, both poverty and access to clean water are combined," he explained.
Beyond lip service
But despite widespread sympathy for the cause, funding to fight malnutrition remains meagre as the financial crisis in rich countries takes its toll on development aid budgets.
"We try to have a global vision about food, including food availability," said Frédéric Bontemps, director of development and global public goods at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"And we are trying to promote this idea at the international level, like for example in the SUN [Scaling Up Nutrition] initiative. By the end of the year, the French Development Agency will streamline nutrition issues into all its projects in West Africa. Finally, we are also pushing the idea of establishing universal health coverage because health and nutrition are part of a whole."
The official added that extra funding should be available for nutritional issues, once the Financial Transaction Tax is put in place.
Bruno Rivalan, from Global Health Advocates, said finance was being too focused on health, instead of making nutrition a priority in regions such as the Sahel. Similarly, 82% of the €500 million promised by France as part of maternal and child support is being used for other types of aid, which are often less effective in saving lives than nutritional programmes.
"France does not quite integrate this component in its aid programmes. However, the costs are low. We know that there are budget problems, so we must now move towards more efficiency,” he said.
Questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of aid and the return on investment, following a report by the French Court of Auditors.
“The issue of sustainability of aid and support to the field is problematic”, said the MP Jean-René Marsac.
“But we hope to correct the situation, especially with the programming and orientation law on development aid, which is planned for early 2014. This will be the moment to push forward these ideas, together with transparency and assessment of development assistance," Marsac said.