Child malnutrition is no child’s play

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By now, it is common knowledge that malnutrition in all its forms – undernutrition, stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity plus the resultant non-communicable diseases – pose a serious threat to human, social and economic development. However, does the world have a full grasp of this cost? Maybe, maybe not. The long and short of it is that according to the World Bank, billions and trillions of dollars are lost annually because of something so preventable as hunger and malnutrition.

Africa remains one of the most food insecure continents with over 200 million women, children and men affected by hunger and malnutrition with very grave consequences. While this scenario prevails, investments in nutrition have continually remained low. Yet the cost of this lack of or underinvestment results in increased poor health and disease not to mention enormous medical costs, low education attainment and poor productivity.

How can something so glaringly huge, yet simple be missed? The problem has been that if it does not resonate in monetary terms, it’s almost as if it does not exist. Nevertheless, I still have to see any nation that has ever developed on the backs of a malnourished population. As shown in the Global Panel’s Cost of Malnutrition brief, poor input, nutrition-wise, leads to poor output in terms of physical and mental development and productivity.

Thanks to this brief, Cost of Hunger and other studies on the subject, now we know the real need and cost benefit of investing in nutrition, and what we truly stand to lose if we do not.

Key findings from the Cost of Malnutrition brief, and other reports, are showing that:

  • Undernutrition places an extremely high burden on health systems and families through requirements for hospitalisation and intensive care.
  • Nutrition is a major factor for dropouts in countries with poor educational achievement levels.
  • Addressing undernutrition will facilitate Africa’s transitions to a more urbanised society.
  • The loss of human capital due to the impact of undernutrition on child mortality rates generates the highest costs to society.

Evidence is showing that, going forward, nutrition-sensitive policies that are evidence based accompanied by nutrition-sensitive agriculture investments should be implemented, and a food systems approach towards tackling all forms of malnutrition is imperative. The cost of not doing so can only be detrimental to human, social and economic development. The time for change is now and all partners must engage, invest and deliver.

Over and above such powerful commitments, lies a huge window of opportunity for consolidating efforts and action for achieving impact at scale in food and nutrition security with the Decade of Action on Nutrition. The Decade provides further impetus for accelerated action in implementing the recommendations of the Rome Declaration and the Framework for Action of the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), and for pushing attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On this matter, I would recommend to read the Nutrition for Growth 2 policy brief containing key recommendations that can guide actions to achieve healthier diets and improved nutrition through agriculture and food systems.

Child malnutrition is no child’s play. Investing in nutrition for optimum development will avert the unbearable cost of malnutrition now and in the future. 

By Boitshepo Bibi Giyose 

Boitshepo Bibi Giyose is a Senior Nutrition Officer for Policy and Programmes in the Nutrition Division in FAO, Rome. Her work focuses on integrating nutrition into agriculture and related development agendas. Before FAO, she served the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as Senior Advisor for Food and Nutrition Security. She also worked for UNDP/UNAIDS as Regional Coordinator for HIV/AIDS and Nutrition; the Commonwealth Regional Health Community (CRHCS-ECSA) as Nutrition Coordinator; the Botswana Government and private sector in various capacities; and as consultant for numerous organizations.

Ms. Giyose was awarded a “Distinguished Alumna Award” in recognition of exceptional professional achievement by Appalachian State University in 2007. She holds a MS in International Nutrition from Cornell University, and a BS in Nutrition and Dietetics from Appalachian State University, USA.