This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.
Politicians aren’t always known for their consistency. They operate in a world of competing demands and shifting political winds, making long-term commitment to a cause a rare achievement. The issues of global health are especially hard to support for politicians facing tough challenges at home, especially economic ones.
So how refreshing — and inspiring — to reflect upon UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his long-term commitment to the global crisis of undernutrition. Cameron’s leadership has played a highly influential role in keeping undernutrition at the top of the global agenda, taking guidance from some of the smartest organizations working in this space like the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), an independent philanthropic organization making tremendously important contributions to the health and well-being of children around the world.
Cameron’s government holds the G8 presidency this year, and they will preside over the G8 set for Northern Ireland later this month. It seems a fitting time to salute the prime minister’s trail-blazing leadership and commitment to addressing undernutrition, which he has been championing since entering office, and advocating for its inclusion in the G8 agenda.
The UK government has a long history of supporting the anti-hunger movement, which over the years has come to define the broader public’s conception of aid and poverty in Africa and Asia. The images of individuals and the staggering numbers of hungry remain powerful for garnering support. But more than ever, we must understand that the consequences of an undernourished population extend beyond the individual suffering, with entire societies at risk. It’s no longer simply about feeding the hungry — it’s about fueling our collective future.
Maternal and child undernutrition is the underlying cause of 3.5 million child deaths annually. That’s almost half of all child deaths globally. If we are to save the 4.4 million children’s and 230,000 women’s lives necessary to to achieve the health MDGs by 2015, we must recognize and address the impact of undernutriition. As Jamie Cooper-Hohn, founder and CEO of CIFF is right to point out, “We cannot achieve Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 without putting undernutrition at the heart of the global development response rather than on the periphery.”
When it comes to undernutrition, we know that food alone is not the answer — a child can eat plates of maize and rice, but without proper nutrients, or if those nutrients are constantly lost due to incessant diarrhea, the child is at risk of stunting (low height for age), and with that severely reduced brain development. 165 million children under the age of five are stunted, and 55 million children face wasting (low weight for height). Children who experience poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life are at risk of developing lifelong physical and cognitive impairments, which can have dire consequences for their educational achievements and employment prospects.
Recent reports by Save the Children and in the Lancet spell out what these statistics mean beyond the individual heartbreak: It shows malnourished children score 20 percent worse on basic maths and literacy tests. Meanwhile a well-nourished child is 13 percent more to likely to perform at grade level. A mere 3-5 centimetres of growth as a child can translate into 20-45 percent increases in wages; more than a quarter greater chance of a skilled job; and a third less likelihood he or she will live in poverty as an adult. This cost to individual households is pronounced at the macro level, with evidence suggesting that Africa and Southeast Asia may forego 11% annual GNP due to stunting.
Last year, PM Cameron co-hosted a UK-Brazil Hunger Summit at Downing Street on August 12, the final day of the Summer Olympics, at which he embraced the goal of reducing by 25 million the number of children left stunted by malnutrition, to be achieved by 2016 when Rio de Janeiro stages the next Olympics. PM Cameron’s government said it would support research to develop drought-resistant and vitamin-enriched crops, along with nutrient-rich seeds and tubers.
On June 8th in advance of the G8, PM Cameron will co-host, along with CIFF and the Government of Brazil, a summit called “Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science”. It will bring together business leaders, scientists, governments and civil society to make the political and financial commitments needed to end this cycle of stunted children and economies.
It would be easy for a politician to walk away from millions of undernourished children whose voices are barley heard thousands of miles away in Britain. But as PM Cameron himself reminded us, “Times are hard here in the UK, but they are infinitely harder for the world’s poorest families. Nearly a billion people around the world do not get enough food. And under-nutrition holds back the growth and development of millions of children. This is simply not acceptable in 2013.”
The enduring commitment of the UK government and partners like CIFF and Brazil give us cause for optimism when we think about the world’s undernourished children. We need to see more unwavering commitment to global health challenges among global leaders. As the G8 approaches, I am hopeful that other nations will recognize the importance of growth, in every sense, for developing countries and their children.