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Experts call for governments to take urgent action to tackle child undernutrition

16 May 2011 Imperial College London

Governments must help tackle undernutrition with committed funds and decisive action, in order to address poor health and poor economic prospects in the developing world, according to a new briefing paper launched today (Tuesday 17 May 2011).

The paper is authored by ten international experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy, and global development, known as the Montpellier Panel, chaired by Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development and Director of Agriculture for Impact at Imperial College London.

The Panel are calling for governments to guarantee financial support to a programme called Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN), which was launched by the United Nations in 2010 and has since been endorsed by over 100 global institutions. Governments of countries including Canada, France, Ireland, UK and USA, as well as donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank have pledged support to this programme, but many have not. The panel is calling for more countries to align with SUN, and for those who already support SUN to match their political commitment with clear financial contributions for developing countries.

The programme draws on scientific and medical evidence, presented in a child undernutrition 'special issue' of The Lancet in 2009, to give guidance on what action should be taken to improve the health of mothers and their young children, and the economic prospects of afflicted nations.

Hunger and inadequate nutrition causes poor health and stunted growth in a third of all the world's children under 5 years old. The briefing paper authors urge governments to take direct actions to tackle child undernutrition including: giving zinc supplements to manage diarrhoea; Iron-folic acid supplements for pregnant women, to prevent and treat anaemia; de-worming drugs for children to reduce amount of nutrients they lose from their food; and other nutrition-specific health interventions for pregnant women and children under the age of two.

Adequate nutrition is critically important during the first 1,000 days of a child's development, including his or her development in the womb.  Undernutrition during this window causes largely irreversible, long-term effects on brain growth and educational development and leads to an estimated 3.5 million maternal and child deaths annually. The briefing paper says actions like promoting breastfeeding and breast milk supplements containing multiple micronutrients, such as vitamins and essential minerals, and even basic hygiene and handwashing during the 1,000 days can have a significant impact on chronic hunger and child mortality.

Additionally, the Montpellier Panel argues that it is just as important for countries that need to tackle child undernutrition to overcome their agricultural challenges to ensure households can grow or produce a range of suitable foods and meet their minimum nutritional requirements.

According to the briefing paper these challenges include increasing the productivity of, and the ability to produce, crops that are high in micronutrients as well as improving the capacity to process or store raw crops so they can be used in times of shortage.

Professor Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development and Director of Agriculture for Impact at Imperial College London, said: "Undernutrition leads to susceptibility to illness, impaired cognitive functioning and lower educational performance, and this directly affects the economic development of a country. Furthermore, investment in agricultural development has a multiplier effect that can improve nutrition and drive economic growth. Studies show that both direct, short-term nutrition interventions and agricultural solutions have been found to be highly cost-effective, so there is no reason why we can’t tackle child undernutrition now."

Briefing paper author Tom Arnold, who is CEO of international humanitarian organisation Concern Worldwide, said: "The first 1000 days of a child’s life are crucial, yet not enough is being done to safeguard the development of children during this period. We are calling for donor governments to support the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) agenda and provide funds to developing country programmes pursuing the SUN agenda."

Co-author Katy Wilson, from Agriculture for Impact at Imperial College London, said: "Agriculture is an important development path to better nutrition. European government donors should support national and regional agricultural policies in developing countries that support food production and ensure access to the means to achieve this, including not only financial contributions, but logistical and educational support from a variety of stakeholders."

Governments of those countries most affected by child undernutrition must take the lead in formulating long-term strategies to tackle the problem, say the authors. However they urge donor governments to invest more resources in agricultural research as well as nutritional and agricultural education programmes.

They say it is also key to improve the economic prospects of smallholder farmers by connecting them to outlets at which they can sell their produce and buy resources like fertiliser and seeds, for example by forming large organisations or cooperatives, farmers become more attractive to commercial buyers or international farming contractors. Additionally, government-backed technologies such as mobile phones with market data services, or infrastructure such as new roads, improve farmers access to buyers and markets.

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