Wiping out hunger

The United States can help lead a new global effort to reduce malnutrition at a summit next month


Over the past 30 years, preventable child deaths globally have been cut in half, from 14 million a year to 6.9 million, thanks partly to U.S. aid. Still, malnutrition remains one of the planet’s most pressing and costly problems.

One out of four children is chronically malnourished and suffers serious, often irreversible, physical and cognitive damage. For 2.5 million young children a year, under-nutrition is a death sentence.

Improving nutrition remains the most effective investment for U.S. foreign aid, especially when it is targeted on children from pregnancy to age 2. Even so, basic nutrition accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. overseas aid.

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Every dollar invested in nutrition generates as much as $138 in better health and increased productivity. Last year, a panel of Nobel laureate economists ranked child nutrition as the most cost-effective way to improve global welfare.

Targeted on young children during their first thousand days of life, nutrition aid eliminates the so-called stunting that will affect a child’s development and chances of success.

Children who suffer from severe malnutrition are nearly 10 times more likely to die from diarrhea and 6.4 times more likely to die from pneumonia, according to a recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund. One in four children under age 5 — 165 million in 2011 — is stunted, meaning chronic malnutrition has caused serious, often irreversible, physical and cognitive damage.

A first-ever Nutrition for Growth summit in London, sponsored by the British government, is scheduled to convene on June 8. That meeting will enable the U.S. government to renew its commitment to global nutrition, and to reaffirm the World Health Assembly target of a 40 percent reduction in the number of stunted children by 2025.

To reach global nutrition goals, the U.S. government needs to pledge $1.35 billion over three years, or $450 million a year, for basic nutrition programs, said Crickett Nicovich of RESULTS, a nonprofit advocacy group. That would more than double current U.S. investment. Moreover, to increase accountability, U.S. nutrition aid must become part of a focused national strategy, subject to annual progress reports, she said.

Nutrition programs mean more than added calories. They promote best practices such as breast-feeding, and provide the right balance of nutritious foods, supplements, and vitamins — such as zinc, iron, and vitamin A — that are needed for the healthy growth of poor children.

Such children’s meager diets now consist mainly of starch staples such as rice or millet. But developing nations such as Tanzania and Niger have created model basic nutrition programs.

Improving nutrition is a pillar of humanitarian aid. It boosts national economic development, promotes more-stable and productive communities — and creates an enormous amount of good will for donor nations.