I was honored to be asked by MamaDrama Consulting to attend the Save the Children kick-off event for their report A Life Free From Hunger. The panel was made up of leading experts in economics, pediatrics, nutrition as well as the Ambassadors to the United Nations from Zambia and Canada. It was an inspiring and informative session, and I’ve tried to share the most relevant items below.
We’ve all seen the heart-wrenching images of starving children in far-flung countries, and we’ve all heard the devastating numbers of deaths associated with starvation. Photographs and video of swollen bellies and crying children have prompted many of us to open our wallets and take action. However, even more invasive and deadly is chronic malnutrition. This widespread problem affects one in four children around the world. Yes, that means 25% of the world’s children are malnourished. It means they are lacking in minerals and necessary nutrients for proper development and growth.
Think about how diligently you give your child vitamins, or nudge her to eat carrots and broccoli for the vitamins. Think about the cereal boxes that boast mineral fortifications. The milk that contains Vitamin D and Calcium. And think about the variety of foods that we can choose from in our grocery stores. We take so much for granted, but it’s not the norm in most places around the globe.
It doesn’t matter if you are a parent in the United States or Gambia — if you are the parent of a hungry child, you feel that pain the same way. This was the image Dr. Stanley Zlotkin, one of the panelists at a recent Save the Children event at the Millennium Hotel at One United Nations Plaza, shared with the attendees. The numbers we hear regarding children and malnutrition are often overwhelming: two million child deaths each year, 30 million children affected each year, and 450 million children affected by stunting over the next 15 years. However, Dr. Zlotkin emphasized that it doesn’t mean that individuals and governments can’t make a difference. And that is the message that will hopefully resonate and spur governments and their citizens to action.
On February 15th, 2012, Save the Children released a report titled: A Life Free From Hunger.(PDF) The report outlines the hidden crisis of chronic malnutrition and its causes. It highlights and demands a call to action to combat the effects of malnutrition that are too often overlooked because its effects are less immediately dramatic than acute malnutrition – or starvation. However, chronic malnutrition affects one in four of the world’s children. Yes, that’s 25% of the world’s children who suffer effects like stunted physical and mental growth and a host of other serious side-effects for the rest of their lives.
This report and its message are especially important considering that the pledges of $22 Billion from world leaders, inspired by the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative at the 2009 G8 and G20 meetings, have only targeted nutrition with 1-3 percent of that money. More must be targeted if 25% of the world’s children are to be given a fighting chance.
Chronic malnutrition leads to three times as many child deaths – over two million deaths – per year as compared to acute malnutrition – or starvation. In the long-term, chronic malnutrition weakens children’s immune systems, which then makes them vulnerable to diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, and death from acute malnutrition in times of food crises. It affects mental and physical development (stunting), and later in life it lowers an adult’s earning potential which extends the cycle of poverty. It is a sobering circle of life.
So what is there to do? To spread the word about the report, together with the Canadian and Zambian consulates, Save the Children co-hosted a star-studded panel of experts. Speaking with passion and urgency, each speaker outlined what she or he felt had to be done. Ambassador Rischchynski, the Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN, pointed out that the global community is not on track to reach the goals set in Scaling Up for Nutrition (SUN). He emphasized that as more children survive, we must ensure that their quality of life is worthy of them.
Leading economist Jeffrey Sachs, who serves as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Millenium Development Goals and directs The Earth Institute at Columbia University, echoed some of those ideas. Referring to costs listed in the report, he asked that the audience and panel members not simplify the problem. He said, “We’ll feel good simplifying, and then we’ll feel bad with the outcomes.” Sachs emphasized promoting integrated strategies and utilizing highly systematic methods of distribution. Saying that solving the problem is “harder than it looks,” Sachs went on to warn that the program is “woefully deficient in funding,” but with a combination of systems, metrics, innovation, and science, tremendous progress could be made.
Kathryn Bolles, the hands-on Senior Director for Health and Nutrition at Save the Children, answered the question of “Why now? Why this push?” by pointing out that several hallmark events are converging: The SUN Movement, the L’Aquila Initiative, and the 1000 Days Partnership all make 2012 a critical year for exposing the realities of chronically malnourished children around the world. Well-nourished children not only survive, she said, they survive to be healthy, productive members of their societies. Dr.
Stanley Zlotkin, recipient of the prestigious “Order of Canada” and the developer of a micro-nutrient powder supplement called “Sprinkles,” spoke next. To try to alleviate the weight of the information shared, Dr. Zlotkin pointed out that even though solving the malnutrition crisis is “harder than it looks,” that doesn’t mean individuals and governments can’t make a difference. His point was that the huge numbers come down to one parent holding one hungry child. For that parent, the child’s pain is very real, very deep. His hope for the release of the report was that it would spark innovation and action in the international community.
Werner Schultink, the Associate Director for Nutrition at UNICEF, talked about the importance of understanding the wide-reaching negative effects of malnutrition. It’s not only stunting, although that is a visible trigger for the public to relate to, it is also pneumonia, diarrhea, and susceptibility to diseases and infections that result from the lack of minerals, vitamins and general nutrition. “It is very well possible to reduce stunting,” Schultink asserted. 26 developing countries have signed onto the SUN movement, and positive changes in implementation are already happening.
Last to speak on the panel was perhaps the most direct stakeholder, Dr. Mwaba Kasese Bota, the Ambassador to the United Nations from Zambia. In Zambia, she said, 10% of the children suffer from malnutrition. Even more shocking, 45% of the children under five have signs of stunting related to malnutrition. However, thanks to a new mother and child health ministry, one stop health centers are providing social services, vitamin supplementation, and nutrition counseling. Seeds and micro-loans as well as access to domestic and livestock water are going out to small farmers. Support of these programs, Dr. Kasese Bota said, is essential.
Topics that came up during the question and answer period included the role of health care workers in affected communities, the effects of HIV on malnutrition and vice versa, and the contradictions and dangers of using large for-profit companies to alleviate malnutrition – which they have caused to some extent. Jeffrey Sachs answered by affirming that it was a valid concern, but that avoiding land grabs by outside companies is a priority for aide-organizations. In fact, small farmers can become partners with large companies to both create higher-earning situations and assure that small farmers’ property holdings are respected. Dr. Stanley Zlotkin added that while it is naïve to think that the companies do not want some advantage, charities and government organizations can also learn from them about how to scale up efforts and marketing.
Save the Children‘s efforts in supporting Every Woman Every Child, spearheaded by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will include up to $500 million over five years. However, the World Bank estimates that getting the needed services to the children who need them will cost $10 billion. Split among developing and developed countries, Save the Children believes that amount is manageable. You can help with your donation – every bit counts! – at this secure Save the Children site.
Please read the release from February 15th: Save the Children Report on Hidden Malnutrition Crisis. And for detailed information, including a simple graph on page five which illustrates the causes and interventions in child nutrition, download the PDF of the new report here: A Life Free From Hunger.