The first Millennium Development Goal seeks to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. This goal establishes as an indicator to monitor progress, the proportion of children under five years of age who are underweight.
Low height-for-age or stunting is a strong indicator of hunger and its key determinant, poverty. Stunting indicates the cumulative effects of inadequate nutrition and poor health conditions that result from endemic poverty.
A recent UNICEF report Tracking Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition, reveals that a staggering 195 million children under five years old, 90 % of whom are in Africa and Asia, suffer from the debilitating impact of stunting attributable to hunger and malnutrition. Hungry and malnourished children struggle to withstand illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea. And often, the illness prevails. Hence undernourishment is an important underlying cause of child mortality.
The children who survive may become trapped in a vicious cycle of incessant illness and faltering growth-usurping their physical health, irretrievably damaging their development and their cognitive capacities, as well as impairing their productivity as adults.
The UNICEF report shows that the health of a child is inextricably linked to the health of the mother. Women whose nutritional status was poor when they conceived or who didn’t gain enough weight during pregnancy may deliver babies with low birth weight. These infants may be susceptible to infectious diseases and as adults may face a higher risk of chronic illness such as heart disease and diabetes. The report underscores the critical importance of the first 1,000 days from conception for a child’s development. Within this window, nutritional deficiencies can reduce the ability to fight and survive disease, and damage social and mental aptitude.
The report notes that there is a much better understanding of the programme strategies and approaches to improve nutrition, based on sound evidence and improved health and nutrition data. However, progress is slow, especially in Africa where stunting dropped from around 38% to 34% between 1990 and 2008. In Asia the prevalence of stunting dropped from about 44 per cent in 1990 to an estimated 30 per cent in the same period. Asia’s relatively rapid progress is strongly associated with rapid economic growth in countries like China, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia.
In Africa, more children may become undernourished due to persistent poverty, adverse weather, rapid increase in food prices an increasing land degradation and decline in agricultural productivity.
Renewed commitments on food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must therefore be a critical part of a wider global and national agenda to address the coupled problems of poverty, under nutrition and human development.