Coming on the heels of a new study finding that malnutrition causes nearly half of all child deaths each year, leaders from around the world will convene tomorrow for a conference in London to address “the silent crisis of undernutrition.”
The meeting, called “Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science” aims to raise funds and political will to improve global nutrition, particularly for millions of pregnant women and children. The event is co-hosted by the UK and Brazilian governments and the London-based charity Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.
“It’s a ‘money on the table’ event,” said Kolleen Bouchane, director of ACTION, a coalition of international advocates for global health. She expressed hope that at the summit there would be a “significant new commitment” to address malnutrition.
The new study was part of a maternal and child nutrition series published Thursday in the British medical journal, The Lancet. It assessed the prevalence of undernutrition and obesity in low- and middle-income countries and found that malnutrition causes 3.1 million deaths in children under five each year, or 45 percent of all child deaths. The Lancet series also addressed scaling up nutritional interventions, mobilizing global action on the issue, and evaluating other programs that could improve nutrition, such as education.
“There are very major problems with undernutrition in the world," said Dr. Robert Black, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was the lead author of the study and who also led the Lancet series. “We could make major advances in reducing child mortality by addressing the nutrition problems.”
Black’s study found that in 2011, at least 165 million children had stunted growth as a result of poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies, 50 million children had wasting, and 100 million were underweight.
Bouchane called the study’s findings “stupefying, even for those of us who work on these issues on a daily basis.”
Earlier this week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that globally, malnutrition, including obesity, could be causing $3.5 trillion in health costs and lost productivity.
The Lancet series follows up on a similar set published by the journal in 2008. Since then, there has been progress on nutrition, Black said. As a result of that 2008 series, the international community launched Scaling up Nutrition, a global effort focused on the 1,000 days between conception and a child’s second birthday that now has 40 countries developing national plans to improve nutrition.
Last year, the World Health Assembly also adopted global targets for reducing malnutrition.
But future efforts will require more resources, Black said.
While global funding for nutrition has grown from around $250 million a year in 2008 to around $400 million in 2011, he said, it still falls short of the nearly $10 billion necessary to address the problem. Black is hopeful, as are advocacy groups, that Saturday’s conference, which comes ahead of the G-8 meeting scheduled later this month, will start closing this funding gap.
The summit is described by organizers as a “high-level international meeting” with governments, businesses, scientists, and civil society.
In a blog post published earlier this week, Molly Kinder, director of agriculture and Europe policy for the advocacy organization ONE called the summit “arguably the single biggest opportunity in over a decade” to mobilize action to improve nutrition.
“We’ve solved a lot of complex problems, and now [nutrition] is the one that we’re wanting to take on,” ACTION’s Bouchane said.
Yesterday, the World Bank Group announced plans to triple its direct funding for maternal and child nutrition, from $230 million in 2011-2012 to $600 million in 2013-2014. Today, the European Union pledged €3.5 billion ($4.6 billion) over seven years to tackle malnutrition. A USAID spokesperson said that the US would not be making a new commitment, but that the country has doubled its nutrition funding since 2008 and long has been a leader on nutrition issues.
Nora O’Connell, associate vice president of public policy and advocacy at Save the Chldren said that the US budget climate has made it difficult to talk about the government growing its commitment. But, she said, she hopes that the US will bring to the conference “a better picture for what it’s doing on nutrition and a commitment for maintaining that.”
In last year’s G-8 accountability report, for example, the US reported allocating $90 million to nutrition, but O’Connell said that the government has done far more on the issue with food assistance.
USAID said that tomorrow, it will share for the first time a collective picture of all US government nutrition and nutrition-sensitive financial commitments. Administrator Rajiv Shah will chair a panel on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a public-private partnership President Obama launched at last year's G-8 meeting that has $3.7 billion in funds.
Both Bouchane and O’Connell noted that the leadership from high-burden countries to develop and finance their own plans was a critical part of the conference.
“The world community has decided, at last, to get serious about nutrition,” wrote FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva in an opinion article for Thomson Reuters earlier this week. “The ‘Nutrition for Growth’ meeting is an important milestone in influencing the course of public action.”
The Nutrition for Growth summit will be webcast live.
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