Malnutrition is the underlying cause of about a third of all child deaths worldwide. This means that an estimated 2.6 million children under five years old died in 2010 because they didn’t have enough good food.
While millions more hungry children survived, their chances are already blighted and they face a lifetime of challenges. The lack of proper nourishment can lead to chronic malnutrition or ‘stunting’ — a state where a child is short for their age.
Long and lasting impacts
Stunting doesn’t only affect a child’s physical growth, but also his or her intellectual development. Evidence shows that a stunted child is more likely to enrol late, miss classes or repeat a year in school.
Later on, adults who were stunted as children tend to earn less than their well-nourished peers, suggesting hunger in childhood has long and lasting impacts.
The consequences of stunting are not isolated at the individual level.
Estimates from the World Bank and othes indicate that developing countries lose 2-3% of their GDP annually due to malnutrition. That would translate to about $52 billion in India in 2010 alone—money that could have been spent on much needed social services such as education and health.
The solutions to address malnutrition are well-known.
In 2008, The Lancet published a list of 13 cost-effective interventions which, if implemented in the 36 countries with a serious malnutrition problem, would reduce under-five deaths by a quarter.
Sadly, countries have had mixed progress in reducing stunting.
Our report, A Life Free From Hunger, shows that in Bangladesh, the proportion of children who are stunted fell from 68% in 1990 to 43% in recent years, which translates into about a 3% reduction annually. This progress, while far from being complete, comes from national nutrition programmes and broader development.
In contrast, richer neighbour India has been less successful in reducing stunting, showing that rising incomes are not enough to address stunting. Countries need to takle the problem directly and adopt sound social policies to improve nutrition.
Brazil’s experience shows that spectacular growth, together with the right social policies, lead to dramatic falls in the proportion of stunted children. Over a 33-year period, the proportion of children who are stunted declined from 37% to 7%.
Time to wake up
Everyone needs to wake up to this hidden crisis.
Addressing stunting comes with a sound economic argument and policy makers, including those in finance ministries, should see this logic.
The world does not need a medical breakthrough to address the crisis of stunting; what we need are strong leadership and political will.