Thursday, 18 April 2013

A Promising Future for Child Nutrition?

This ProgBlog article by Robbie Lawrence, Wikichild Coordinator, is part of the Wikiprogress Health Series.

"In June, the Prime Minister will host the Nutrition and Growth event ahead of the G8; we hope Mr Cameron takes this timely opportunity to pledge significant investment in nutrition programmes and show real leadership in improving children’s futures, as well as those of their communities and their countries.” David Bull, UNICEF UK

Wikichild is currently focusing on nutrition as part of the wider Wikiprogress spotlight on health this month. On Monday, UNICEF released ‘Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress’ which reports that significant advances have been made in the fight against stunting – the long term effect of hunger and malnutrition. Citing successes in eleven countries - Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and Vietnam, the report shows that stunting and other forms of undernutrition can be brought down by improved understanding of the problem and the implementation of practical measures that target pregnant mothers and children in the first two years of their life.

According to UNICEF, one in four of all children suffer from stunting because they haven’t had the right nutrients in the critical 1,000-day window following conception. Malnutrition, through lack of both macronutrients and certain micronutrients has long-term negative impacts on brain and nerve development and function, including mental activity, and the acquisition of skills needed to interact well socially. This impairment is often reflected in lower IQs and poorer performance at school (Save the Children). The damage done to a child’s body and brain by stunting is irreversible. It brings down performance at school and later at work, and heightens children’s risk of dying from infectious diseases.

‘Improving Child Nutrition’ builds on UNICEF’s earlier report ‘Tracking Progress on Child and Material’ by highlighting new developments and showing that attempts to improve nutrition programs are working. An estimated 80 per cent of the world’s stunted children live in just 14 countries spanning across Africa and Asia, and by working in communities within these nations, UNICEF and other organizations have reduced stunting by applying a series of steps including, improving women’s diet, early and exclusive breastfeeding and providing minerals and appropriate food to new mothers.

These programs all have common elements: political commitment, national policies and the presence of trained community workers to deliver information and aid. To use two examples of their success; we can look at Ethiopia, where stunting has been cut from 57 percent to 44 percent in the first decade of this century through the implementation of a national nutrition program, and at the Maharashtra state in India where the percentage of stunted children fell from 39 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2012 due to the support of frontline workers. 

Such progress is undoubtedly promising, and presents a unique opportunity for future global frameworks to further alleviate the problem of undernutrition. UNICEF itself acknowledges that there is still a great amount of work to be done if the World Health Assembly’s new global target of reducing the number of stunted children under the age of five by forty percent by 2025 is to be achieved. 

More recently, inequality has been a hot topic on the Wikichild, Wikiprogress and Wikigender platforms so we are well versed in the hidden realties that large, all encompassing goals such as this can mask, but it is encouraging that new approaches are targeting individual countries and communities, allowing accurate data systems to be developed that can describe and monitor changes in the circumstances of different population groups.

Furthermore, tools like the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (released last week) provide greater transparency and public accountability by measuring what governments achieve, and where they fail, in addressing hunger and undernutrition. Even Duncan Green has commended the HANCI, stating that ‘it could become one of the more useful annual league tables’, as it forces governments to be ‘slapped’ if they underperform. 

Nutrition should remain at the center of the global development agenda leading up to Post 2015. The evidence laid out in UNICEF’s report and the momentum generated by their successes shows that improving child and maternal nutrition is an achievable necessity for global progress.

Wikichild Coordinator

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