Thursday, 1 November 2012

Education for All - A Focus on Nutrition

According to this year's EFA Global Monitoring Report, early childhood is the 'critical period' in which the foundations for success in education and beyond should be put in place.

The report is important because it highlights that education is not solely about making sure children can attend school but are provided with the support and opportunities that will allow them to prosper in later life.

This article will focus on Goal 1 of the report which aims to expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, by looking specifically at the importance of nutrition in young children's development.


In a recent interview at the 4th OECD World Forum in Delhi, David McNair of Save the Children emphasized the threat that malnutrition poses to children:

“This is a problem which is hidden. It is the killer of 2.3 million children every year and there is an additional 170 million children whose physical and cognitive development is stunted because they don’t receive the right nutrients in the early stages of life.”

Despite a decline in the global number of deaths of children under five from 12 million in 1990 to 9.6 million in 2000 and 7.6 million in 2010 (EFA 2012), this drop is not sufficient if the fourth Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015 is to be met. In 2005 the WorldHealth Organization reported that more than half of all deaths among children are caused by malnutrition. It is therefore arguable that if governments seek to provide adequate quantities of higher quality food with more micronutrients, child mortality levels may drop to the targeted percentage.

Alongside mortality rates, stunting is the most appropriate measure of childhood malnutrition. Current trends reveal that by 2015 as many as 157 million children will suffer from stunting (EFA 2012). Broken down that is one in four children under the age of five. Stunting results in increased susceptibility to disease but also undermines a child's future potential, on a wider this can have associated economic effects for a country both in medical costs and in the creation of a depleted, unskilled workforce.

While the physical implications of malnutrition on children are clear, the cognitive effects should not be overlooked. In a press release for the their research report no. 18 (2006), the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning wrote:

“The diet of children has risen to the top of the political agenda, not only for the potential health repercussions later in life, but also for its immediate effects on mental health of children and their consequent school experience and attainment.”

Malnutrition, through lack of both macronutrients and certain micronutrients has long-term negative impacts on brain and nerve development and function, including on mental skills and activity, and the acquisition of skills needed to interact well socially. This damage is often reflected in lower IQs and poorer performance at school (Save the Children). In the same way that physical stunting has economically related costs, cognitively stunted youths will struggle to enter a country's workforce. An example of this can be seen in Sub-Saharan Africa, an area that arguably sees the highest levels of malnutrition in children (EFA, 2012), where only 10% of jobs are available to young people. According to the OECD's  Promoting Youth Employment in Africa about 133 million young people are illiterate; while poverty and poor education facilities are catalysts to this problem, malnutrition almost certainly lays the foundations for it.

© UNESCO / Bangladesh

It is evident that progress has been made in the global drive to tackle malnutrition, however, by assessing these gains on such a wide level, areas where progress has been slow may get overlooked. Ironically, these areas are arguably where the most progress needs to happen. If we are to take the example of Sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 of the 28 countries with child mortality rates above 100 per 1000 live births are located (EFA, 2012), there has actually been an increase in child stunting from 38 million in 1990 to 55 million in 2010. According to UNICEF, “Children marginalized by poverty, rural location have benefited least from progress.” Malnutrition is rooted in poverty and deprivation. At a time where food prices are sharply rising poor people are likely to suffer the most since they wont be able to buy food even when it is available. The EFA report reveals that in more than two-fifths of the eighty-eight countries with accessible data, the difference between in stunting rates between rural and urban children was more than ten percent.

It is important to note that strong economic growth does not necessitate improvements in nutrition among children. While India has experienced exponential growth over the last decade, there has been little progress made in improving nutrition. Stunting rates have remained high and almost half of children under five are malnourished, a statistic that the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decried as a “national shame.” (EFA, 43)

There is evidently a long way to go if the issue of malnutrition in children is going to be countered. While there are signs of progress, it is too slow and uneven. Judging by current rates, only 11 of the 65 countries with more than 40 child deaths per 1000 live birth will reach their Millennium Development Goal targets (EFA 40). Without proper nutrition, children around the world are struggling to achieve their full potential and this reduced productivity will weaken economic growth. David McNair stipulates that if we are to prioritise this issue then "we need to have the right metrics and statistical systems in place to ensure that government's are held to account for the progress that is being made." The EFA Global Monitoring report goes someway in allowing us to ascertain where particular improvements need to be made.

Robbie Lawrence, Wikichild Coordinator

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