Undernutrition in the Land of Rice

By Nic Dakin, MP for Scunthorpe

A year ago today the UK hosted an important conference on Nutrition and Food Security. Called Nutrition for Growth, the event showed that 165 million children around the world are chronically malnourished (stunted) and 52 million children are acutely malnourished. Its difficult to make sense of such big numbers, but on a recent trip to Cambodia the issue of nutrition became much more real to me.


Nick Dakin at the community health session, volunteers weigh each baby to check for satisfactory weight gain

Staying in Phnom Penh in February, our hotel was surrounded by building sites of skyscrapers and all the trappings of a booming economy. Cambodia has seen good rates of economic growth over the last 2 decades, yet there are high rates of maternal and child undernutrition.  Cambodia  is far from unique in this  – it is one of 43 countries with a child stunting rate over 30 percent.

Walking down the alley way of an urban slum area we visited community nutrition classes organised by UNICEF and the health ministry. Children ran around barefoot and dirty water stagnated under the shacks raised on stilts above the mud. Families without drinking water have to buy small quantities from one of the few neighbours who has piped water. The low access to water, and almost zero access to sanitation is one of the main reasons children get sick – and sickness can cause malnutrition.

The community health workers also explained to us that the diet given to children is poor – rice, rice and rice. Cambodia is a rice exporting country. “The poorest mothers just give their children rice, twice a day, and a thin soup of rice water with salt”. This does not give children the essential proteins, minerals and nutrients they need for healthy development. These micronutrients are particularly crucial during the first thousand days of life (from conception to age two).

Poverty of course is the root cause of undernutrition. In each house near we saw small piles of cloth from a local towel factory. Parents do piecework to earn the money they need just for rice and the piped water. We also saw a smart young man on a motorbike visiting some of the houses. He turned out to be a debt collector, Cambodia’s equivalent of a pay-day loan shark.

A new report published by RESULTS UK, Undernutrition in the Land of Rice  gives a brief assessment of the causes of ongoing high rates of undernutrition in Cambodia and some recommendations for agencies in Cambodia and for the global community.

Large sums were pledged at the Nutrition for Growth summit a year ago, both by the UK, and other countries, the World Bank and private foundations. DFID have just published a one year summary of what they have spent so far here.  Its an impressive document and they are to be commended on funding four new bilateral nutrition programmes since the conference.


Mothers attend community health session with their children

On this anniversary I’d like to see all donors make public their spending since last year, as DFID have done. There needs to be more transparency about what has been promised from the private sector and private foundations. For the children of Cambodia, and dozens of other countries, we need to be sure that pledges made a year ago in front of presidents and dignatories is now being translated into good quality nutrition spending that is reaching the poorest.



Photo credits: (C) Steve Lewis/Results  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s