Why good nutrition is a gift for mothers and children everywhere

Why good nutrition is a gift for mothers and children everywhere

This post by Roger Thurow was originally posted on The Chicago Council on Global Affairs on March 8, 2016.

What might be the best present ever?

The gift of good nutrition, for it would benefit moms and children everywhere.  Even better, it is a gift for all of us.

Anemia affects half a billion women of reproductive age worldwide, leading to maternal death and serious birth consequences for infants, including stillbirths, prematurity, and low birth weight. Every year, malnutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths of children under age 5 (that’s a total of 3 million young lives lost); of those who survive, one in four are stunted.

That these medieval maladies have persisted into the second decade of the 21st century is a shame on the global conscience. Now, the World Bank and other development agencies and foundations are increasing the urgency to reduce malnutrition with a package of priority investments. It has a hefty price tag: $2 billion a year above current annual nutrition spending.  But, really, it’s a great bargain.

Rather than look at the cost, consider the savings, as the World Bank has done. The additional annual investment of $2 billion in nutrition over the next 10 years could save 2.2 million lives and result in 50 million fewer stunted children – especially if the improved nutrition efforts are concentrated in the first 1,000 days, the time from when a woman becomes pregnant to her child’s second birthday. This is the time when the foundation for healthy physical growth is set, when the brain grows most expansively and rapidly, when the immune system is bolstered for life. Proper nutrition for mother and child with the essential minerals and vitamins is the fuel for all of this.

Akin Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, calls it investing in “grey matter infrastructure.” It is, he says, as important to a nation’s prosperity and stability as investments in other economic infrastructure, like roads, bridges, ports, and buildings.

And yet, in this period when the world benefits the most from good nutrition, we are spending the least; just 1% of global health budgets goes to nutrition, and very little of that in the first 1,000 days. Although the importance of good nutrition is everywhere in international development—it is the cornerstone for progress in education, health and labor productivity—it has been nowhere in development strategies. The interventions targeted for urgent scaling up in the World Bank-led priority package of investments include: vitamin A supplementation for children, micronutrient supplementation for pregnant women, iron and folic acid supplements for adolescent girls, staple food fortification, national breastfeeding promotion campaigns, promotion of good infant and young child nutrition and hygiene practices.

I saw the benefits of these investments while reporting my new book, The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children – And the World. It is clear that malnutrition in this critical time of development often results in stunting, both physically and cognitively, effectively sentencing the child to a lifetime of underachievement. The cost for the individual child is enormous: a diminished capacity to learn and earn and an increased likelihood of chronic disease and obesity as an adult. The cost is devastating for the family, the lost earnings and higher health care costs of a stunted child making the climb out of poverty that much more difficult.

Countries and continents with 30% to 40% stunting rates lose significant chunks of their GDP, about 11% for both sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. The global toll adds up to trillions of dollars lost annually to lower productivity, higher health care costs, and reduced global economic activity.

But the greatest cost of malnutrition in the 1,000 days is immeasurable. A poem not written. A novel not imagined. A gadget not invented. A mystery not solved. A horizon not explored. An idea not formed. An innovation not nurtured. A cure not discovered. What might a child have contributed to the world if he or she hadn’t been stunted in the 1,000 days? A lost chance at greatness for one is a lost chance for all. A stunted child anywhere is a stunted child everywhere.

The gift of good nutrition benefits not just one mother or one child.  It benefits us all.

Roger Thurow is a Senior Fellow (Global Food and Agriculture) at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is an expert on agricultural development, and his new book, The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children – And the World, is available now

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