In May 2012 I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about the need for G8 leaders to position strategies for preventing malnutrition high on the agenda for their annual summit. Back then I wrote, “indicators of child malnutrition, such as height, reflect much more accurately than gross domestic product whether development progress has truly been achieved in a country. Chronic malnutrition reduces not only the productivity of that specific individual, but also their entire community and country.”
I spoke of using child nutritional status as a “human yardstick” to measure success and called on G8 leaders to stand up for nutrition and invest in the critical first 1,000 days – from conception to a child’s second birthday – as a human development strategy that will lead to a stronger, more sustainable global economy. Those 1,000 days represent the crucial window in which access to healthy foods and essential nutrients can mean the difference between a child thriving or suffering severe and often irreversible mental and physical developmental damage. We’re talking stunted growth (especially reduced height), loss of IQ, and the inability to survive common illnesses like diarrhea and measles. Beyond those first 1,000 days, undernutrition takes an immense hit on a country’s economic productivity, costing countries as much as 11 percent of their GDP. Another study showed the right nutrition during childhood can increase individual earnings over a lifetime by up to 46 percent!
Now, on the eve of the next G8 Summit, we also find ourselves at about 1,000 days since the launch of the 1,000 Days Movement, of which Helen Keller International is a founding partner. Back in 2010, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined with world leaders and NGOs to find solutions to accelerate progress toward reducing hunger and realizing the Millennium Development Goals by scaling up investments in nutrition. Those critically important goals include reducing the proportion of people suffering from hunger by half by 2015.
In light of both occasions, we should ask ourselves: How much of this “human yardstick” of child nutrition is really being regarded by our national leaders including those from G8 countries? What more do we need to do to make the elimination of child undernutrition an urgent goal not just for child survival but also for national economic development?
The good news is that some progress has been made in supporting the scale-up of programs that improve nutrition of children and their mothers. For example, this weekend British Prime Minister David Cameron will host Nutrition for Growth, a pre-G8 meeting seeking to persuade donors as well as developing countries to make new commitments to address hunger and undernutrition and to be accountable in doing so. Almost exactly a year ago, health leaders worldwide adopted the Maternal, Infant and Young Child Nutrition Resolution at the 65th World Health Assembly in Geneva, agreeing to commit to reducing the number of stunted children in the world by 40 percent by 2025.
And we know more than ever before what will work. We have scientifically proven nutrition actions that can have a rapid and sustainable impact in reducing undernutrition – vitamin A supplementation for children, optimal breastfeeding during the first two years of life, providing nutritious complementary foods to infants along with continued breastfeeding from 6 months of age onwards, large-scale micronutrient fortification of staple foods like flour and cooking oil, just to name a few.
But there is still a long way to go. Today there are still nearly 870 million hungry people, and according to data released just days ago by the eminent Lancet journal, in 2011 there were 165 million stunted children. Clearly many countries are not on track to meet the 2015 MDG around hunger. The new Lancet data also shows that undernutrition causes 45% of all deaths of children under five years which translates into 3.1 million child lives lost annually. Within these numbers, poor maternal nutrition on its own leads to the death of one quarter of all newborns. Funding for these efforts globally remains depressingly low:only about 0.4% of all Official Development Assistance goes toward nutrition – that’s 4/10 of a penny for every dollar in aid. More funding is needed to support the scale-up of proven programs.
So what can we do over the next 1,000 days in hopes of catching up to the goals set for 2015? Keep nutrition high on the agenda and at the core of all conversations around national development and economic growth, especially as we identify top development priorities beyond the year 2015. Leaders from developing nations, civil society groups and government will be sharing their insights on progress in reducing malnutrition, challenges and what’s needed at Sustaining Political Commitment to Scaling Up Nutrition, an international action and advocacy meeting on Monday, June 10, in Washington, DC. You can listen in on the livestream and share your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter using #Next1000Days.
Over the next 1,000 days, my colleagues and I here at Helen Keller International believe it is possible for more children to live to see their fifth birthdays and be happy and healthy when celebrating them. Our vision is for a future where all women are able to focus on attaining education and opportunities for their children instead of worrying about what to feed them or themselves, where families have the tools and resources to grow and purchase nutritious food throughout the year, where parents understand key lifesaving child feeding practices that will safeguard their children to reach their full physical and intellectual potential, and ultimately where communities thrive and economies flourish.
The economic bottom line today is best represented by the “human yardstick” as healthy and well-nourished children will help countries grow economically and become stronger. Investing in what we know will work for nutrition is a very smart investment.
The next 1,000 days will be an important chance for all of us – but particularly for national leaders including those from G8 countries – to stake a claim in making the elimination of undernutrition and hunger a reality.
Follow Victoria Quinn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@helenkellerint