Investing in Nutrition (1)

Investing in Nutrition

Tackling New Challenges, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Good nutrition is essential for everyone’s health and well-being. It is crucial for children, as malnutrition can lead to stunted growth, cognitive impairment, and reduced productivity in adulthood. Ethiopia has made significant progress in reducing malnutrition in recent years, but more work still needs to be done. Investing in nutrition is good for the economy. However, Ethiopia’s malnutrition problem has been exacerbated by conflict and climate shocks. These factors have led to food inflation and population displacement. Despite the growing challenges to the fight against malnutrition, the country still has the potential to become an exemplar state for malnutrition solutions in the region, writes EBR’s Eden Teshome. 

By hampering adequate growth and development in childhood, malnutrition affects the capacity of an individual to earn and, hence, their ability to afford good nutrition, creating a vicious intergenerational cycle. Malnourished children go on to make 20 Pct less than average as adults. A 2007 study by Gu H and Wang L, two Chinese researchers who have published extensively on the topic of malnutrition, revealed that they have a 10- to 11-point deficiency in IQ (intelligence quotient), which is a measure of the intelligence of an individual derived from results obtained from specially designed tests from childhood to adulthood, making it harder for them to both learn and earn. A nation’s economy suffers if its citizen’s productivity is low. Stunted children grow up to become less productive adults. Various studies show that labour productivity declines as the severity of stunting increases. 

Over the years, Ethiopia has significantly improved in reducing children’s malnutrition. The prevalence of chronic malnutrition has decreased: Statistics from 2000 and 2019 show a reduction from 58 Pct to 37 Pct for child stunting, 41 Pct to 21 Pct for underweight children, and 12 Pct to 7 Pct for child wasting. However, close to six million children under five are stunted, 3.4 million children under five are underweight, and 1.4 million children under five suffer from wasting (a form of malnutrition characterized by low weight-for-height), according to the Ethiopia Mini Demographic and Health Survey 2019 (EMDHS 2019). 

“Ensuring optimal nutrition in all stages of life would lead to improved nutritional status, quality of life, longevity and productivity which, in turn, are key to ensuring economic growth,” says Dr Meseret Zelalem, Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Service Lead Executive Officer at the Ministry of Health.

According to the Cost of Hunger in Africa study series by the African Union and World Food Programme (WFP), 2022, the economic ramifications of malnutrition are significant. Ethiopia loses around USD 4.7 billion a year due to child undernutrition. Low- and middle-income countries like Ethiopia collectively lose up to USD 850 billion each year because of malnutrition-related productivity loss, according to a study by Chatham House in 2020.

Ethiopia’s malnutrition problem has been affected adversely by conflict and climatic shocks that have led to food inflation and population displacement. In a country where 55 Pct of women and 83 Pct of men work in agriculture, subsistence agriculture plays a prominent role in the rural economy. The livelihoods of rural populations are impacted by weak markets and limited access to improved technologies, making Ethiopia further susceptible to climate-related shocks. 

“Among other issues, lower production coupled with poor food safety, have also highly contributed to food and nutrition insecurity in our country,” adds Dr Meseret. 

More than 20 million women, children and men are suffering from hunger and require urgent assistance. Compounding factors include devastating conflict in the north and severe and unprecedented drought in the eastern and southern regions, aggravating an already debilitating situation. 

“Investing in the health and nutrition of mothers helps break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and malnutrition. There is an urgent need for focussed investment for mothers during pregnancy,” says Dr Sufia Askari, Managing Director of Sight and Life. 

Sight and Life is a charitable foundation based in Switzerland to close the nutrition gap for vulnerable populations by empowering communities to provide local solutions for local problems. 

Micronutrient deficiencies are common among pregnant women and mothers in Ethiopia. Two in three women of reproductive age are deficient in one or more micronutrients. The dietary diversity score showed that only 14 Pct of women consume the minimum recommended five food groups. 

Dr Askari has worked for many years in Ethiopia and says, “With progressive policies, and engagement and collaboration of multiple sectors, Ethiopia has shown how we can improve maternal and child nutrition status with collective and coordinated efforts.”

The Government of Ethiopia has been implementing various food and nutrition-related policies such as the Food and Nutrition Strategy (FNS) and the Seqota Declaration, a multisectoral plan to end stunting in children under two by 2030. The fact that the Deputy Prime Minister leads them shows the attention given to the issues. Food and nutrition coordination platforms have been established in the country, functioning at national and regional levels to bring together FNS implementing sectors, UN agencies, donors and civil society organizations (CSOs), the private sector and academia. These platforms are vital in coordinating all relevant actors to implement national food and nutrition-related policies, strategies, programmes, and projects at all levels. 

“Among the key actors greatly contributing to our cause of addressing malnutrition in all its forms and manifestations are food and nutrition development partners,” says Dr Meseret, acknowledging the role of the development sector in combatting malnutrition. “The Government of Ethiopia has shown great political commitment and leadership with an increasing trend of financing development partners and CSOs and supporting community engagement efforts. The Ethiopian government and the health sector commend their continued support in the implementation of FNS.” 

While the current crises-led aggravated food shortage in Ethiopia needs humanitarian aid, the global experience of organizations like Sight and Life, which has been working in 13 low- and middle-income countries across the world, has shown that there is a need to complement these efforts with longer-term solutions for sustainable impact. “The world around us has changed, the markets are changing, and so is food affordability. It’s important that we understand the consumer segmentation rather than go with the “same size fits all” approach,” says Dr Askari. 

Even in Ethiopia, almost 70 Pct of consumers have some affordability capacity. Ensuring good nutrition for those who can afford and using aid and subsidies for those who cannot is possible with appropriate tools to leverage market forces. 

Ethiopia has been leading from the front on innovative maternal and child health and nutrition interventions, which can become an exemplary state for malnutrition solutions in the region. The stats are testimony to what is possible to achieve in Ethiopia. Malnutrition is everyone’s business – and it needs long-term, locally-led solutions.

11th Year • October 2023 • No. 122 EBR


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