Right now, 130 million girls around the world are out of school, either because they face social and economic barriers to attending or staying in school or because they are otherwise prevented from doing so. On March 8, International Women’s Day, ONE launched a massive campaign, #GirlsCount, to correct this injustice. As one of the policy directors at ONE, my portfolio centers for the most part on agricultural development, food security, and nutrition. So why am I speaking up about making sure #GirlsCount?
It turns out that malnutrition has a huge role to play in keeping kids out of school and hampering their performance.
In a way, this should be fairly obvious—we see it even in rich countries like the United States. My sister has taught lower income students in several U.S. communities, many of whom relied on federally-funded school breakfast and lunch programs—too often as their only food for the day. If they arrived at school too late for breakfast, their mornings were spent lethargic, distracted, and irritable, not having eaten since yesterday’s school-provided lunch. Learning was impossible. You’ve probably seen it in your own kids, even when they just miss a snack. That gut intuition and common observation that hunger and malnutrition erode academic performance is backed up by an increasing number of scientific, peer-reviewed studies, with measurable impacts on IQ points.
Imagine, then, what it must be like for the families living in extreme to “moderate” poverty in the developing world, struggling to get by on less than $3.10/day per person (keeping in mind that the U.S. poverty line sits at about $32/day per person). Globally, almost 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger (where, on a regular basis, they don’t get the calories they need for normal daily activity). If you include chronic malnutrition, that number skyrockets into the billions.
Malnutrition underlies nearly half of all under-5 child deaths—about 3 million babies each year—and is linked to about 40% of all maternal deaths. Even when the child survives, if she hasn’t gotten the nutrition she needs in the critical first 1,000 days from her mother’s pregnancy to her 2nd birthday, the resulting brain and physical damage is permanent, leading to such a massive loss of learning and earning potential that some estimates show a 16% loss in a country’s gross domestic product.
Despite the unconscionable loss of a child’s potential (and a nation’s for that matter) that malnutrition wreaks, rich countries are spending less than 1% of their development assistance to end global malnutrition.
This is a solvable problem. We know how to address it (there is a universally-agreed set of curative and preventative treatments), and it is cost-effective. For every $1 invested in malnutrition, the return is $16. That is well over 1,000 times the average return on a 401K.
If global leaders believe that #GirlsCount, then they must not only help girls to overcome the barriers to getting into and staying in school. They must also significantly step-up their investment in nutrition, lest malnutrition send those girls spiraling backward or permanently rob them of their potential before they even get a chance to start kindergarten.