NEW YORK — A group of government, business, science and NGO leaders are gathering in London for “Nutrition for Growth,” a special meeting hosted by the UK and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation to “galvanize leadership to deliver a transformational effect on maternal and child under nutrition across the world.”
A valiant objective, but some may question what real impact it can really have? After all, while there is unprecedented support among governments, civil society and the private sector for the need to scale up nutrition and food security efforts, only about 0.4 percent of all international aid goes to improving nutrition — hardly enough support to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for 2015.
So, while as president of Helen Keller International, I am honored to participate in “Nutrition for Growth” and look forward to working with those present on real solutions toward reducing malnutrition, I do so with the understanding that this meeting is more than just do-gooders gathered around a lofty cause because we are running out of time.
Investment in nutrition must be made an urgent a priority at this latest G8 Summit. UK Prime Minister David Cameron gets this, which is why he organized the pre-summit meeting to focus new energy on the issue.
After all, if a nation’s children are too weak from malnutrition to go to school, how can they learn skills necessary to contribute to society and help raise their families out of poverty? If a nation’s people are not healthy and strong enough to be part of a highly productive workforce, how can that country build an economic engine to support robust international trade?
Reducing malnutrition around the world is not just a feel-good mission; it is a conceivable and urgent objective that we must commit to if we truly want to build economies. To effectively break cycles of poverty, more international aid must be directed toward nutrition programs, especially for the most vulnerable: women and children.
This call to increase that investment is not about throwing endless amounts toward unproven strategies, especially at a time when both developed and developing nations are still recovering from the economic downturn. We know what those investments need to be: programs that not only provide nutritious foods and supplements, but teach people about good nutrition practices and develop their ability to provide for themselves.
The call now is to scale them up to maximize their effectiveness so we can reach the goals set for reducing malnutrition, child mortality and other preventable tragedies keeping too many nations from reaching their full potential.
These investments are not only proven, but cost-effective. For example, delivering high dosage vitamin A supplements to young children – essential for strengthening immune systems so they can survive common illnesses like diarrhea or measles – costs less than $1 per year per child. The World Bank calls this “the single most cost effective public health intervention.”
We also know that fortifying staple foods such as flour and cooking oil make important nutrients easier to access for poor families, enabling them to strengthen their diets at home. The cost to do this is just a few pennies per day per family.
In Burkina Faso, for example, Helen Keller International not only helped introduce vitamin A fortified cooking oil and iron, folic acid and zinc fortified wheat flour in 2008, we helped the government adopt legislation to mandate food fortification, making the impact sustainable in the long term.
We can also substantially reduce serious, often irreversible, developmental damage in children by providing effective education to ensure mothers and families understand and adopt good nutritional practices during the first 1,000 days of life (from pregnancy to age two), as well as good hygiene and sanitation practices for as little as $15 per year for a household.
These relatively small investments can yield powerful returns. A panel of some of the world’s leading economists at the Copenhagen Consensus 2012 revealed that for every $1 invested reducing chronic undernutrition there can be $138 in ROI: better health, improved education and increased productivity, just to name a few.
Over the past two decades, we have been able to reduce malnutrition in impoverished countries significantly spending just 4/10 of a cent of every dollar of international aid. Imagine the impact — for the 165 million children under five who are chronically malnourished and the other 55 million with acute malnutrition – if that amount were increased to even one full penny.
We are also well aware of the consequences. More than one in three child deaths is linked to malnutrition, and children living with it suffer irreversible damage in their mental and physical growth. It is directly linked to stunted economies, with a loss in annual GDP of as much as 11 percent. Malnutrition is not just a result of poverty; it is a cause and a key factor in continuing the cycle in the world’s poorest places.
So I am going into this meeting with confidence that we know what needs to be done and how to do it, and that nations around the world can afford to support the scale up of proven nutrition programs. In fact, we cannot afford not to.
Kathy Spahn is president and Chief Executive Officer of Helen Keller International, an NGO dedicated to saving the sight and lives of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged.