A golden opportunity to combat global malnutrition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

This article is part of our special report Nutrition and Child Survival.

On the threshold of several prominent international meetings, there is no better time than this to boost resources for nutrition and to work together to tackle both the causes and symptoms of child malnutrition and stunting, writes British MP Stephen O’Brien.

Stephen O’Brien is a Conservative member of the British House of Commons. A former international development minister, he is the UK Special Representative for the Sahel and co-chair of the Conservative Friends of International Development. This commentary first appeared here and is reprinted with permission.

"I strongly welcome the launch of Unicef’s significant and hard-hitting report on child nutrition.

The report identifies both the key statistics and evidence from across the world about child nutrition rates, with particular regard to pre-natal care, breastfeeding, and various vitamin and mineral consumptions; and also outlines how, as a global community, we can tackle the pressing issues of child malnutrition and stunting. These are vital concerns which I have seen on my countless visits over the last 35 years to some of the most challenged and vulnerable parts of the world, especially in Africa, but also in Central and South America, in the Middle and Far East, and in the Indian subcontinent.

The prominence of child (mal)nutrition has emerged strongly in the last few years amongst development partners, international organisations and NGOs. It was a key part of my focus during my time as an international development minister and, in my current role as the prime minister’s envoy and UK special representative to the Sahel in North and West Africa, it remains so now.

Stunting is the irreversible impact of not receiving enough nutritious food within the first 1,000 days of life, from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday. Staggeringly, there are today around 165 million stunted children around the world – more than one quarter of the world’s children under age five are unable to develop physically or mentally as they should. Whilst the vast majority of children in the UK are well fed and nourished, the situation in many developing countries is in stark contrast, as 90% of children affected by malnutrition and stunting live in Africa and Asia.

The link to extreme poverty is incontrovertible – as children in the poorest communities are more than twice as likely to be stunted, particularly in rural areas where as many as one third of children are affected. In addition to this, every year 2.3 million children die of malnutrition.

As the Unicef report notes, it is imperative to focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life as the crucial window of opportunity for change – it is during this time that proper nutrition has the greatest impact on a child’s health and potential future wellbeing and opportunities. There are proven low cost solutions for reducing stunting – indeed, the report outlines a set of 13 direct interventions which target pregnant women, breastfeeding, and complimentary feeding. Given this cogent evidence, I urge the prioritisation and allocation from the UK’s committed development resources for an extra boost to combat malnutrition. This is vital, recognised by all who study the evidence and who, across the political spectrum, are concerned about the avoidable ravages of global poverty.

Unicef’s report and its recommendations can be unequivocally supported because they point the way to what is do-able, let alone desirable. Tackling malnutrition is inextricably linked to the wider development goals we are pursuing as a nation through the admirable humanitarian and development commitments the coalition government has made and is rightly sticking to. This is the more crucial in light of the potential impact of climate change (whatever one’s view of its cause) whose demonstrable effects are the more immediate and devastating on the poorest people in the least developed nations on the planet.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have estimated that there will be an extra 25 million more malnourished children by 2050 as a result of the drastic volatility in food prices, agricultural yields and adverse weather. Tackling malnutrition is an economic investment – addressing stunting can break the cycle of poverty and boost the economic development of a nation. Leading economists have estimated that every $1 spent to reduce chronic malnutrition can have a $30 payoff. The World Bank has estimated that the funding shortage to address child malnutrition is $10.3 billion a year – of which the UK share would be $232 million.

With developing countries contributing half of the budget, there is potential to save the lives of 2 million children around the world. As stunting negatively affects the school attendance and performance of these children, tackling malnutrition must also be seen as a long term social investment. This funding would help ensure that children are properly nourished and is, therefore, essential in protecting children from illnesses, allowing them to develop physically and mentally, helping them to learn and concentrate in school – thereby raising IQ – and it is estimated, in time, to increase their earning potential.

Tackling malnutrition is a vital investment in the health of a nation. Consider that undernourished mothers have a much greater chance of giving birth to low birth weight babies and that an estimated 60-80% of neonatal deaths occur among low birth weight babies – we need to work together as the generation with the power to bear down on and eliminate these problems which, with political will, are totally tractable. This is absolutely key to the ‘golden thread’ of development espoused and promoted by Prime Minister David Cameron – ensuring that we tackle all the causes of extreme poverty as well as the symptoms of it.

It is clear that this year is a golden opportunity for the UK government to shape the international agenda. In November 2012, the prime minister pledged to "lead the way in the battle against hunger" and, with the Hunger Summit and the G8 approaching, I believe there is no better time than this to call for the allocation from our budgets of prioritised boosted resources for nutrition and to work together to tackle both the causes and symptoms of child malnutrition and stunting – one of the surest ways to secure sustainable, demonstrable results and improved lives and hope."

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