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Improving Child Nutrition is an Investment in the Future

1 June 2013

Next Saturday 8th June the governments of the UK and Brazil will host an international pledging conference in London named ‘Nutrition for Growth’.  It is the first ever summit on nutrition  and  is held in the build-up to the G8 meeting  a week later.  It is a welcome step that the global development community is beginning to prioritise efforts to reduce global hunger – investment in nutrition programming has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective of all development interventions.

Undernutrition contributes to the deaths of  2.6 million children a year. And 165 million children around the world are chronically malnourished.  But global numbers are hard to comprehend. Travelling in Ethiopia in February with a delegation of British parliamentarians, including Sir Tony Cunningham and Kevin Barron, we saw many stunted children – but we also saw what can be achieved with a modicum of funding for detecting and combating undernutrition.  We visited  a remote rural health post in Hawassa district. Each health post in Ethiopia has two community health workers who can detect cases of undernutrition within the local area. By using a simple technology they can measure upper arm circumference and detect potential stunting.  The health workers explain “As long as there is no concurrent sickness we can now treat undernutrition in the community”.

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Photo by Steve Lewis

This successful programme is supported by DfID. But overall only 0.4% of global development aid goes on nutrition programmes – a tiny amount. The Summit on 8th June can make a significant improvement in the attention and funding, given to nutrition programmes, most importantly those that can improve nutrition in the first 1000 days of life. Improved investment brings economic benefits in the future. Well-nourished children do better in school and are more likely to get good jobs and create economic wealth.  A country that invests in nutrition specific programmes for children now will reduce ill health in adults in the future and can bring an estimated economic boost of 2% to future GDP.

So what is to be done? Firstly in the short run – David Cameron has to make sure there is very high level attendance at the Summit on 8th June, and the UK needs to make a substantial pledge. Agencies united in the IF campaign are calling for a UK contribution of £150 million a year for at least five years.   Labour can get behind  the Summit by showing cross-party support on the day.

In the longer term however there is more of a role for Labour. Firstly we need to call on the government to appoint a high-level Nutrition Champion.  We need  a respected figure with all-party backing to keep this issue on the table. This is an area where experienced figures such as Hilary Benn and Douglas Alexander could be influential.

Secondly a one off summit is no use – it needs to be part of a process. The next government in 2015 should be committed to a follow-up event . Labour  should  be calling now for another summit, to be held in Brazil before the Olympics of 2016.

Lastly, this summit will rely heavily on new initiatives from the private sector and on scientific solutions. But as Labour we know that neither of these things is enough. There is a place for technological advances  (eg.  micronutrient fortification), but in the bigger picture the answer to undernutrition lies in building justice. Families can eat well when they have access to land and credit, when women are literate and empowered, and communities have the power to decide what to grow. A future labour government must continue to fund programmes that build justice and access to food, and address the structural causes of inequality and malnutrition.

Steve Lewis is a member of LCID and has worked in development programmes in Ecuador, El Salvador and Zimbabwe.

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