Famine should no longer be in our vocabulary

Wed, May 16, 2012, 01:00

OPINION: Ireland can be leaders in the eradication of malnutrition

I TRAVELLED last year to the Horn of Africa during the height of the drought that pushed 12 million people to the brink of crisis. I had witnessed suffering and death caused by hunger before, but I was nonetheless shocked.

As I write this, a food crisis is also looming in the Sahel region of west Africa, where millions of people, many of them children, are again facing hunger and famine caused by severe drought, food price spikes and the vulnerability of people and communities across the region.

We are at a point in history when famine should no longer be in our vocabulary, and food security and hunger should no longer be considered as a “poor country” problem. We can and must all make hunger and malnutrition history.

We have the perfect starting point. Science tells us that good nutrition in the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday is the best investment for lifelong health, well-being and economic development. It is clear-cut and compelling and we must act on it quickly and with conviction. This is why we are today launching a 1,000 Days Campaign to drive political momentum and raise public awareness for what we believe is one of the biggest game-changers in international development in decades.

In 2008 the British medical journal The Lancet compiled all the research that had been done on nutrition in a five-part series and put forward the compelling evidence that if a child does not have adequate nutrition in the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday, the damage is irreversible.

The Lancet identified evidenced-based, cost-effective solutions that should be targeted in this 1,000 days period. In 2009 the World Bank reinforced this evidence and outlined 13 interventions that, if delivered at scale, could potentially save the lives of one million children a year. Furthermore if this package of 13 proven solutions is delivered, the global economic benefit is calculated to be a staggering €203 billion every year.

The components of proper early-childhood nutrition are widely known – and are taken for granted in developed countries – such as proper nutrition and health support for women before, during and after pregnancy, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life, and access to safe, clean water and sanitation. The fight against hunger, especially child hunger, is at a critical crossroads. We have never had as much knowledge and evidence as we do today to make malnutrition history.

Despite all of this, nearly a billion people will go hungry today. Every year over 2.7 million children continue to die of malnutrition-related problems – one every 12 seconds. For those who survive, the effects last a lifetime. One in three children in the developing world – that’s 171 million children – has stunted growth, irreversible after the age of two, by which time a child’s cognitive and physical development is irreparably damaged.

Ireland and Concern have already been driving forces in the global effort to develop the 1,000 Days Partnership internationally and to build what is known as the Scaling Up Nutrition movement to ensure that nutrition is prioritised in the highest burden countries in the world.

The G8 leaders convene in Camp David at the end of this week. There is an imperative, both moral and political, to renew and redouble commitments already made to millions of people whose lives hang in the balance every day. After our launch today I will travel to the United States, where Concern is hosting two international events along with fellow NGOs, academic institutions, for-profit companies and others to harness international support for ending malnutrition and to push the G8 to renew its commitment to food security and nutrition.

Action on ending malnutrition for children and their mothers must also take root here at home and across Europe. If there was just one thing we could do as a country to make the greatest impact on the lives and futures of babies and infants, improving nutrition in the 1,000 days window would be it.

Ireland knows hunger. Despite our size we are recognised as global leaders in tackling hunger and malnutrition. We can strengthen this reputation. At EU and international level, we must speak out on the urgent need to address hunger and undernutrition, across all areas of government. Our presidency of the EU in the first six months of next year is an opportunity to show leadership when crucial final negotiations will be taking place on Europe’s budget for 2014-2020. We must stay on track to deliver on the UN target of investing 0.7 per cent of gross national income in overseas development by 2015. Within this, we must deliver on the commitment to invest 20 per cent of our aid budget in addressing hunger and nutrition. This is visionary and smart. It can be even smarter if it focuses on nutrition for children and their mothers.

There are huge challenges ahead – the looming food crisis in Sahel brings this into sharp focus. Every day that a child goes hungry has both immediate and long-term implications; not just for that child, but for us all. But these challenges are not insurmountable. We have the knowledge, we are taking on the responsibility and we are rallying the political will. By working together, as a country, and as leaders on the world stage, we can eliminate hunger and its root causes, blights that are utterly unacceptable in our time. The first day of the 1,000 is today.


Tom Arnold is chief executive of Concern Worldwide and was recently appointed to the Scaling Up Nutrition lead group by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. He was also recently appointed chairman of The Irish Times Trust.

concern.net/1000days

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