#Article (Archive)

Africa: Tackle malnutrition head on

Nov 11, 2014, 9:39 AM

Guest editorial

Eight hundred and five million of the world’s people are chronically hungry, according to estimates by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

But this figure represents only a fraction of the world’s population whose lives have been blighted by a lack of adequate nutrition.

Malnutrition is believed to be the underlying cause of death for 2.6 million children annually. At least two billion people do not get enough of the micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and trace elements – essential for their cognitive and physiological development, especially during early childhood.

As a result, a quarter of the world’s children – the number rises to a third in developing countries – are ‘stunted’. They are unlikely to reach their full physical or intellectual potential and are vulnerable to disease due to compromised immune systems.

Receiving the right nutrients in the first years of life is not only a matter of life and death, but also a major determinant of life chances, affecting the ability of the child to learn and later to work.

Improving the nutrition of a child will potentially raise its future earnings by a fifth.

The burden of poor nutrition on individuals and families has a cumulative economic impact. Malnutrition has been estimated to cost as much as five percent of global income – in terms of lost productivity and additional health care expenses.

Today, about 170 million children under five are stunted. Four in five of these malnourished children are to be found in just twenty countries. Almost half of Indian children under five are stunted.

In Nigeria, over half of the poorest children are stunted, while in China, children in poor rural counties are six times more likely to be stunted than urban children. In Indonesia, a sharp rise in ‘wasting’ – or acute malnutrition – in the wake of recent food crises has hit children from the poorest households hardest.

On November 19-21, 2014, FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) will co-organize the ministerial-level International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), 22 years after the first one in 1992.

ICN2 should enhance commitments to address malnutrition in all its forms and to establish the bases for sustained international cooperation and policy coordination to overcome malnutrition.

Nutrition’s time has come. By cooperating more effectively, we have a real chance of ending this blight on humanity within a generation.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is the Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization and received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.