A jaw dropping, head spinning statistic

Children at Mawango School in Malawi eating a mid-morning snack of porridge, supported by the World Food Programme. Photo: Morgana Wingard

It is not often that I read a statistic that makes my jaw drop and head spin.  Today, I did. 

Last midnight, the eminent British medical journal The Lancet released a seminal new study on child and maternal nutrition.  In the report is a shocking discovery: we have been (dead) wrong about malnutrition all along.  Yes, we knew that malnutrition is a major problem across the developing world. Yes, we knew that it robs millions of children of their lives and productive futures.  But we what we didn’t know is just how bad it really is.

Today we learned that the scourge of malnutrition is a far greater threat to children’s lives than we ever thought.  It turns out that a shocking 3.1 million children every year die because of the underlying problem of malnutrition.  That accounts for 45% of all child deaths under 5 years of age, not a third as we previously understood.  In other words, malnutrition is responsible for 600,000 more child deaths each year than we realised.  

On top of that, for the children who manage to survive malnutrition in their early years, 165 million will grow up stunted as a result.  This means that their growth, learning ability, cognitive development, and future income and productivity is jeopardized – for the rest of their lives.  And it also means that the development and human capital of entire countries is sabotaged.

What is so shocking about this statistic is the juxtaposition to what donors are contributing now to the fight against malnutrition.  Total global aid to basic nutrition last year was only $418 million, or only 0.4% of all foreign aid.  How can this be, when malnutrition claims millions of lives and affects so many of the world’s poorest children and mothers?

Fortunately, there is good news – and just in time.  The Lancet authors found that a million child lives could be saved each year if a set of 10 proven nutrition interventions were scaled up.  This is not easy, and it costs money – $3-4 billion/year from donors alone, according to the new study.  But we have the evidence and the solutions.  What we need now is the political will for leaders to finally tackle this nutrition crisis.

In just two days, world leaders will convene in London for what is the single biggest opportunity in two decades to fight malnutrition.  At the Nutrition for Growth event, Prime Minister David Cameron and the Government of Brazil will call on these leaders, heads of states, CEOs, and heads of foundations and civil society organisations to make bold pledges to finance the fight.  The breaking news from The Lancet should add urgency to their calls and should trigger even more ambitious action.

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World leaders need to step up.  48 hours to go. 45% of child deaths.  The moment for action is now.