No child should suffer the injustice of stunting

Saturday April 20 2013

Anthony Lake

Anthony Lake  

By Anthony Lake and Tom Arnold

It is entirely fitting that Ireland is hosting the April 15-16 International Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice in Dublin.

Fitting because it was there, in Ireland, that an historic injustice took place — the Great Hunger of 1845-52, in which one million human beings died, many of them children.

And fitting because Ireland has been and is a leader in the global fight against another great social injustice: Stunting.

If you have never heard of stunting, you are by no means alone. A vast human tragedy, it is one of the least reported, least recognised, least understood issues before us.

Stunting, caused by chronic under-nutrition early in a child’s life, blights the lives of some 165 million children around the world. It is far more than a problem of inadequate growth/height for these children. It can trap them in a lifetime cycle of poor nutrition, illness, poverty and inequity.

Stunted development

Why? Because stunted growth in the first months of a child’s life means stunted development of the brain and thus, of cognitive capacity. Permanently.

Stunting hampers not only the future ability of an individual child to learn and earn, but also the social and economic progress of the countries in which they live. In real terms, it cuts school performance, translating into a reduction in adult income by 22 per cent on average. It also leads to increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adult life.

In 2011, it was estimated that more than one in every four children under five in the developing world were stunted, or 28 per cent — an estimated 160 million children. Some 80 per cent of children globally live in just 14 countries. Stunting continues to be prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and is highest among low-income countries.

High stunting rates are part of the reason why the world is not on track to reach most of the Millennium Development Goals, notably on extreme poverty and hunger, child and maternal health, and combating HIV and AIDS. Under-nutrition contributes to one-third of child deaths and around one-fifth of maternal deaths.

The good news is that it does not have to be this way. In fact, attacking stunting is a huge development opportunity. And a cost-effective one.

We know what works. Expectant mothers need vital nutrients like iron and folic acid; newborn babies need that natural “superfood” – breastfeeding — in that first fragile hour after birth and then for the next six months.

Adequate solid foods need to be introduced at the right time. Throughout, adequate health care and good hygiene and sanitation are vital. Poor sanitation and thus repeated bouts of diarrhoea contribute to stunting.

In 2008, eight of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates, in the so-called Copenhagen Consensus, recommended priorities for confronting the top 10 global challenges.

They ranked providing young children with micronutrients the number one most cost-effective way to advance global welfare. And in 2012, they reached a similar conclusion.

More good news: While stunting may be under-appreciated as a global challenge and opportunity, there is a growing international response, to which the conference in Dublin will contribute. A major global initiative called the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement is bringing much needed investment in and focus on nutrition for children and women in numerous countries.

Indeed, more and more countries are scaling up nutrition programmes to reach children during that critical first 1,000-day period and in a child’s life.

Markedly reduced

And as a new report on child and maternal nutrition by Unicef shows, countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Haiti, Peru and Rwanda have already markedly reduced stunting levels in recent years, showing that progress is possible.

Ireland has been a strong supporter of these efforts and during its EU presidency can press a bold agenda to address hunger, nutrition and climate justice.

No child, no mother, no country, should ever have to suffer the injustice of a lack of nutrition in the 21st century.

What is more unjust, more cruel, than condemning a child, in the womb, to a life of deprivation — especially when we know how to prevent it?

Surely, if we know how to do so, and have the means to do so, there can be no reason not to do so. Urgently.

Anthony Lake is Unicef executive director and Tom Arnold is with the Scale-Up-Nutrition movement