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World leaders address global child malnutrition crisis

By Rev. David Beckmann and Lucy Sullivan on May 18, 2012
© The Hill's Congress Blog

If you had $75 billion to spend on solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, where would you start? An expert panel of Nobel laureate economists known as the Copenhagen Consensus recently answered that question. After extensive research and consultation, they determined that the single best investment the world could make to advance health and prosperity would be to fight malnutrition in young children.

We have always known that tackling child malnutrition is the right thing to do. Perhaps now that it’s seen by experts as the smartest thing to do, we will be able to mobilize the investment needed to finally tackle a condition that plagues close to 200 million children, robbing them of their health and future potential.

Thankfully, we already know how to prevent the needless suffering and the nearly 3 million child deaths that result each year from malnutrition. Simple interventions such as breastfeeding and inexpensive treatments for diarrhea management in young children could save more than 1 million lives a year.

We also know that proper nutrition early in a child’s life—particularly during the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday—can help break the cycle of poverty by ensuring healthy brain development, stronger immune systems, better performance in school, and higher earning potential.

As a prelude to the upcoming G-8 summit at Camp David, discussions on how improving early nutrition can accelerate progress on hunger and poverty will take center stage at a briefing on May 18 on Capitol Hill. During the event, called “Scaling Up Nutrition: Calling All Champions,” senior government officials, development experts, and civil society leaders, will underscore the need to prioritize action on child malnutrition as part of their development and food security discussions at the G-8 summit. 

The speakers also will focus on the progress developing countries have made in the fight against child malnutrition. Through the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) movement, 27 countries have committed to achieving measurable progress on improving nutrition and are investing their own resources to reduce chronic malnutrition in their populations. 

With some of the highest levels of malnutrition in the world, these 27 countries have acknowledged that a poorly nourished population is a serious impediment to their economic growth and future prosperity. Research shows that improving early nutrition can increase a country’s GDP by at least 2 to 3 percent annually. For the global donor community, each dollar spent in reducing chronic malnutrition has as much as a $138 payoff in terms of gains in productivity and health savings.  

While the Copenhagen Consensus recently concluded that fighting malnutrition in young children should be policymakers’ top priority, they also recommended that $3 billion per year (out of $75 billion over four years) be allocated to this effort. Unfortunately, what the world currently spends on improving nutrition falls painfully short of this number—a mere $400-$500 million per year.  

It is time global leaders examine their commitment to fighting hunger, poverty, and disease by taking a closer look at how they are working to improve nutrition, particularly for women and children. President Obama is expected to deliver a historic address on hunger on May 18.  In recent history it is rare to see a President champion the issue of hunger. It’s important to support President Obama’s vision to end hunger in our time. As part of a food security and hunger strategy, it is critical that the administration, Congress, and G-8 leaders take bolder steps to improve nutrition by:

•    committing concrete, measurable targets to reduce chronic malnutrition in  children.
•    supporting the SUN movement and SUN countries’ efforts to improve nutrition.
•    ensuring that food security, agriculture, and health investments are specifically targeted and resources improve nutrition.

Malnutrition is preventable and treatable, and cost-effective solutions exist. With this knowledge comes a responsibility to act—as individuals and as nations. 

To learn more about the 1,000 Days Partnership, visit www.thousanddays.org. To learn more about Bread for the World, go to www.bread.org.

Beckmann is president of Bread for the World and Sullivan is executive director of 1,000 Days.

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