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Nutrition For Growth – One Year On

A boy in Pakistan's Sindh province has his upper arm measured to see whether he is at risk of severe acute malnutrition. WFP, in partnership with the government, UNICEF and WHO, is supporting a nutrition programme in the area. See photo gallery 

(Copyright: WFP/Amjad Jamal)

The Nutrition for Growth compact signed a year ago in London by government leaders, UN agencies and private partners, put the fight against undernutrition in the spotlight.  WFP’s Ella Getahun looks at the link between childhood undernutrition and countries’ economic performance as highlighted in the Cost of Hunger in Africa study.

One child in four in this world suffers from stunting caused by poor nutrition during the first thousand days of his or her life.  This translates into an estimated 165 million children who pay a high individual price by missing out on the opportunity to meet their full potential in growth and development. But there is another price paid and it is measurable in GDP . Do you know how much child undernutrition is costing economies in Africa? A groundbreaking study, the Cost of Hunger in Africa, is researching this issue.

More than 90 percent of the world’s stunted children live in Africa and Asia. While progress has been made in reducing the burden of stunting globally, child undernutrition continues to be a persistent challenge for Africa.  

Good nutrition, especially during the critical window of opportunity during the first 1,000 days of life, can make all the difference in ensuring good health and child development.  Undernutrition has lifelong consequences for individuals, including poor health and reduced performance in school. In addition, undernutrition also has wide-ranging impacts on communities and countries as a whole. Beyond the human costs, undernutrition has real implications on overall national development and global economies.

The Cost of Hunger in Africa study (COHA), a flagship initiative of the African Union Commission (AUC) implemented with the support of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), estimates the economic cost of undernutrition to be between USD$77 million to USD$3.7 billion every year (2-16% of GDP) due to losses from optimum revenue from labour productivity and preventable increases in public and private costs related to health and education. In addition, there is the “opportunity cost” – the missed opportunity resulting from premature death due to undernutrition. The study further estimates that in Africa, countries can generate economic savings ranging between US$ 60 million to US$2 billion, in reduced morbidity, lower repetition in school and incremental productivity both in manual and non-manual sectors.

The study so far conducted in five countries in Africa – Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Swaziland and Uganda- strongly illustrates both the social and economic consequences of undernutrition.

Ensuring access to nutritious foods is an essential component in preventing the irreversible forms of child undernutrition, helping to break the intergeneration cycle of malnutrition. Yet, despite the availability of recognized and efficient interventions to address child undernutrition, the number of undernourished children in Africa has been on the rise. Sadly, today there are more stunted children in Africa than 20 years ago.

One year ago, the Lancet medical journal announced that 45% of child deaths can be attributed to malnutrition, helping to illustrate the urgent need for the scale-up of nutrition interventions. Responding to this need, government leaders, UN Agencies and private partners came together to sign the Nutrition for Growth compact.  

Now, the findings from the Cost of Hunger study further support the evidence base for prioritizing investments in child nutrition. Most importantly, the results from the study have served as a wakeup call for policy makers, raising awareness and action for nutrition at the highest level. In addition, the study further highlighted the multisectoral, interconnectedness of nutrition, hence calling for a renewed commitment and strong leadership at the highest political level with a concerted and coordinated approach.

It was against this background that African Ministers renewed their commitments by setting ambitious goals for reducing child stunting by as much as by half by the year 2025 at the recent AU joint Ministers of Agriculture, Rural Development, Fisheries and Aquaculture held at the African Union Commission in May 2014.  

A recent progress review study conducted in Ethiopia, Swaziland and Uganda revealed policy and programmatic level changes spurred as a result of the findings of the COHA study, including stimulating countries to joining the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement. For instance, in Swaziland the national safety net programme has been revised to include children from birth instead of just school children from the age of six as per the initial proposal.

The time for Africa is now! The social and economic transformation agenda of the continent cannot be effectively achieved unless child undernutrition is addressed as a priority. Nutrition For Growth means giving children a better future and allowing people and countries reach their full potential.