ETHIOPIA’s current hunger situation a ‘code red emergency’, says Save the Children; country director John Graham told Reuters news agency that the scale of drought “is like nothing I’ve seen before in the 19 years that I’ve lived in this country.”
About $1.4 billion that is needed to respond to the crisis has been pledged, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs, but most of the pledges have not been paid.
The ongoing crisis is a result of two consecutive failed rains caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, but Africa’s malnutrition crisis is a much more chronic and debilitating problem, whose economic magnitude is often little-appreciated.
According to the World Food Programme, Ethiopia lost an estimated $4.5 billion in 2009 because of child undernutrition, equivalent to 16.5% of the country’s GDP that year.
In Egypt, the same WFP study concluded that a staggering 40% of adults were stunted as children – that is, shorter than they should have been for their age. This represents more than 20 million people of working age who are not able to achieve their full potential.
Child undernutrition costs Swaziland around $92 million per year in lost worker productivity, while Uganda spends around $254 million per year treating cases of diarrhoea, anaemia and respiratory infections linked to malnutrition.
Lost children, and hours
The early deaths among children each year of causes related to hunger reduce Uganda’s labour force by some 3.8%. That amounts to some 934 million working hours lost every year due to an absent workforce, says WFP.
It’s one of Africa’s most serious problems, linked to issues around poverty, availability and access of food, as well as diet quality and diversity.
The quality of diet is particularly important because nutritional setbacks during the first 1,000 days of life (pregnancy and up to 24 months of age), can result in irreversible losses to growth and cognitive potential, make children more vulnerable to chronic illnesses, reduce educational attainment and earning potential as well as dramatically reduce the quality of the workforce at a national level.
But there are some innovative solutions in Africa, including an ambitious one in Nigeria, where 30% of children are stunted, and almost 1,000 children die from malnutrition every day, according to Ministry of Health data.
In the latest, the Dangote Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have announced a combined commitment of $100 million over the next five years (2016-2020) towards ending undernutrition in Nigeria. This commitment is aiming to improve the lives of at least five million families by 2020.
Despite rapid economic growth, Nigeria is home to the highest number of stunted children in Africa and the second highest globally. Almost one in five Nigerian children is acutely malnourished and more than one in three children suffer from stunting.
With its vital role in child health, growth and cognitive development, better nutrition will be essential to unleashing the potential of Nigeria’s next generation.
“Nutrition is one of the highest impact investments we can make in Nigeria’s future growth and prosperity. We know that well-nourished children are more likely to grow up to be healthy, fend off preventable diseases, achieve more in school and even earn higher income as adults,” said Bill Gates.
“This partnership builds on our foundation’s strong commitment to Nigeria – one of several countries where we are working closely with the government, the private sector and civil society to improve health and development outcomes.”
According to Save the Children, the Nigerian government spent $10 million annually between 2010-2014 on combating child malnutrition, meaning that the Dangote/Gates initiative is quite substantial. Improvement in nutrition could boost GDP by as much as 11% annually.
Programs will include fortification of staple foods with essential micronutrients, community management of acute malnutrition and investments in the local production of nutritious foods.
“In the spirit of our new partnership, we encourage even more deliberate and significant commitments from the Government of Nigeria at all levels to step up investments in nutrition. We have to ensure that children who are already malnourished receive help and are prevented from dying while we improve the conditions that led to them being malnourished in the first place,” said Aliko Dangote.
Moreover, malnourished children tend to do poorly in school, and better school results tend to raise lifetime earnings by at least 10%, according to the Nigerian Ministry of Health. In fact, for every N100,000 spent on nutrition, Nigeria’s economy is poised to gain N2.5 million.
Fighting malnutrition can thus create more economic prosperity and prevent economic stagnation in Africa’s largest economy – which is particularly important as low oil prices seem to be the ‘new normal’, so Nigeria will have to find a way of boosting growth without relying on its major export earner, crude oil.