By Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva
Anyone who has gone without food for a couple of days knows the debilitating effects of hunger. For many of us, the experience is transient – we fail to eat during a trip or a long working day, for example – and infrequent. But for 220 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, hunger is a daily threat. And it often has permanent consequences.
Hunger in Africa – and the role that food security plays in people’s current and future opportunities – is the focus of the first Africa Human Development Report, which was launched in Nairobi on Tuesday by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Those familiar with the work of UNDP know that its Human Development Reports have long been making key contributions to national, regional and international development debates.
It was about time for the first HDR for Africa. I’ve covered the main messages of the report elsewhere. In this post, I focus on a specific topic: African children are at particular risk of suffering the long-lasting burdens of malnutrition – especially while in the womb and during the first two years of life. As the Africa HDR says:
“Hungry children with weakened immune systems die prematurely from communicable diseases such as dysentery, malaria and respiratory infections that are ordinarily preventable and treatable. They start school late, learn less and drop out early. Malnourished mothers are at greater risk of dying in childbirth and of delivering low-birthweight babies who fail to survive infancy. Undernourished babies who make it through infancy often suffer stunting that cripples and shortens their lives. As adults they are likely to give birth to another generation of low-birthweight babies, perpetuating the vicious cycle of low human development and destitution.”
Malnourished people are less efficient and productive, so their wages fall and they struggle to meet their food needs. The cycle then starts over, trapping people in poverty and malnutrition; if it is ignored, it could pose a serious threat to the recent upturn in economic growth and human development experienced by many African countries.
One of the first casualties of malnutrition is education. Poor nutrition leads to poor performance in school. Undernourished children do worse on tests of cognitive functioning, have poorer psychomotor and fine motor abilities, suffer from low activity levels and interact less with their peers. Children are slower to acquire skills. Undernourishment is correlated with lower enrollment rates, and fewer grades of schooling.
Breaking this cycle – and improving the quality of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth – requires direct investments in nutrition and a change in how governments think of nutrition policies. Nutrition is not a humanitarian issue, it is mostly a long-term development goal and a tool for a productive and active society. The best opportunity to leverage the positive effects of nutrition lies with children.
Putting nutrition at the center of national development agendas in Africa will require strategic, coordinated government interventions that deal with the many factors involved, including poor infrastructure, lack of education, lack of dietary diversity, wanton poverty and neglect by policy-makers. There are positive examples to draw from in sub-Saharan Africa, however. Senegal has integrated nutrition into a comprehensive national strategy, and Ghana is moving in a similar direction.
Focusing on nutrition is a low-cost investment that will pay large dividends. As a recent policy paper for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report says, the impediments to eradicating malnutrition – in Africa and elsewhere – are social and political, not technical or financial. Neglecting malnutrition has the unacceptable characteristic of being both immoral and inefficient – something the G8 leaders should bear in mind as they discuss food security with African leaders at their summit meeting in Camp David, Maryland.
Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the incoming head of research at Oxfam GB, is one of the authors of the 2012 Africa Human Development Report.