‘Back to school’: Investing in nutrition enables children to fulfil their potential

Guest blog by Arnaud Sologny and Melissa Kaplan, health advocates at Action Against Hunger, on the links between nutrition and children's development

Undernutrition is often addressed solely as a health issue, but its broader impact on child development, hence on a country’s economic development, is frequently underestimated.

As kids in the northern hemishpere go back to school this week, did you know that, compared to a healthy child, a child suffering from undernutrition can lose up to fifteen IQ points[i], is 12% less likely to be able to write a simple sentence at age 8[ii] or will achieve up to 3.6 years less in school education[iii]?

In order to reach their full potential, nations need to empower their children to discover creative ways to drive future growth and development.

However, today, more than 200 million children still suffer from undernutrition worldwide (155 million stunted, 52 million wasted[iv]); this greatly jeopardizes their ability to get an education and participate in national development.

Undernutrition is a strong risk factor for children’s cognitive development, opening up inequalities that will last a lifetime and often grow as they grow older. Among other things, maternal undernutrition affects fetal growth and brain development through lack of Vitamin D; iron deficiency anemia before three years of age results in delayed brain maturation. Overall, studies have shown that stunting among young children predicts poorer cognitive and educational outcomes[v]. Undernutrition currently leaves nearly four in ten children in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with under-developed brains and bodies[vi]. Damage caused by undernutrition in the first 1000 days of a child’s life are irreversible.

Besides the impact on educational performances, nutritional deficiencies during early childhood development also have an impact on school attendance throughout children’s schooling. In addition to suffering from fatigue and inability to concentrate, stunted children are physically weaker, subject to repeated illness and more likely to miss out on opportunities to acquire lifelong skills[vii]. Undernutrition also undermines children’s self-esteem and career aspirations. Various studies provide evidence of the impact of obstructed early childhood development on later mental health, with higher levels of depression and anxiety among stunted and formerly wasted children[viii]. Moreover, a child’s nutritional status can influence the experiences and stimulation children receive: for instance, parents can treat a stunted child differently because he or she is small[ix]. Undernourished children thus not only face diminished bodily and cognitive capabilities, but are also less confident to learn and change their own futures.

The first good news is that ensuring children receive adequate nutrition and education can foster rapid socioeconomic change and reduce inequality. The second good news is that we know what nutrition interventions we should invest in.

The first two years of child’s life - and especially the first 1000 days - are a window of opportunity to prevent and tackle the adverse effects of undernutrition and their impact on the cycle of poverty. Better nutrition contributes to better education by providing every child with the ability to succeed in life. Early nutritional programs have permanent and long-term impacts: they can help to increase the income of adults affected by malnutrition at an early age by between 5 and 50%, from country to country.

Conversely, better education means better nutrition, as maternal and nutritional education is a strong determinant of child health and well-being. Mothers without knowledge of the causes of undernutrition need education as much as food from supplementary feeding centers. According to UNICEF, providing every woman in low and middle-income countries with primary education is expected to reduce stunting by 4%, representing 1.7 million children. Giving those women a secondary education would reduce stunting by 26%[x].

In light of all of these facts, undernutrition should be considered both as a development and an economic emergency. Ensuring early childhood development is not only morally right, but also economically smart.

Every $1 invested in the fight against undernutrition generates between $16 and $20 in economic return[xi]. The potential of undernourished children can be unlocked with good nutrition to develop strong brains and bodies. Nutrition is therefore key to boosting a nation’s human capital. In a global economy requiring highly skilled workers more than ever, escaping the cycle of poverty requires eradicating child undernutrition.

In 2016, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim declared, As countries prepare for a more digitalized global economy, I’m deeply concerned that our failure to tackle this challenge is condemning millions of children to lives of exclusion – lives where they won’t have the brain power to succeed in school or in an increasingly digitalized workplace”[xii].

Recent World Bank estimates suggest that $50 billion are still needed to reduce stunting by 40% by 2025. Overall, an investment of $70 billion over 10 years will be necessary to reach global nutrition targets for stunting, wasting, breastfeeding and anemia[xiii].

Governments need to invest today in a skilled, healthy and productive workforce in order to ensure future economic growth and allow children to be all they can be. Investing in the fight against undernutrition is a first step to break out the poverty cycle and ensure equal opportunity.

 


References

[i] S Horton (1999) ‘Opportunities for investments in low income Asia’, Asian Development Review, 17, p.246–73

[ii] Save the Children, Food for thought – Tackling Child Undernutrition to Unlock Potential and Boost Prosperity, 2013. http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/Food_for_Thought_UK.pdf

[iii] Stunted children achieve 0,2 to 3.6 years less in school education. Cost of Hunger in Africa Study: http://www.costofhungerafrica.com/10-findings-of-coha/

[iv] Joint child malnutrition estimates - Levels and trends (2017 edition). UNICEF-WHO-The World Bank Group.

[v] Black, R. E., Victora, C. G., Walker, S. P., Bhutta, Z. A., Christian, P., de Onis, M., … Uauy, R. (2013, August). Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries. The Lancet. Elsevier BV.

[vi] UNICEF, (2014). The State of the World's Children Report 2015 Statistical Tables. [online] New York: UNICEF. Available at: http://www.data.unicef.org/corecode/uploads/document6/uploaded_pdfs/corecode/SOWC_2015_Summary_and_Tables-final_214.pdf

[vii] Save the Children, Food for thought – Tackling Child Undernutrition to Unlock Potential and Boost Prosperity, 2013. http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/Food_for_Thought_UK.pdf

[viii] Black, ibid.

[ix] Prado E, Dewey K, Insight Nutrition and brain development in early life, AT&T Technical Brief, issue 4, January 2012

[x] Save the Children, Unequal Portions – Ending Undernutrition for Every Last Child, 2016. http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/Unequal_Portions.pdf

EFA Global Monitoring Report (2014). Teaching and Learning: Achieving quality for all Pg. 15. https://www.unesco.nl/sites/default/%20files/dossier/gmr_2013-4.pdf

[xi] International Food Policy Research Institute, (2016). Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Undernutrition by 2030. Washington, DC. [online] Available at: http://ebrary.ifpri.org/utils/getfile/collection/p15738coll2/id/130354/filename/130565.pdf

[xii] Remarks by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim at the Early Childhood Development Event, World Bank – IMF Spring meetings,03/14/16, http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2016/04/14/remarks-world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-early-chilhood-development

[xiii] Remarks by World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim at the Early Childhood Development Event, World Bank – IMF Spring meetings,03/14/16, http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2016/04/14/remarks-world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-early-chilhood-development