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FOOD: Nourishing future champions
LONDON, 13 August 2012 (IRIN) - In Central London, late on Sunday
afternoon, as workmen were clearing away the barriers from the Olympic
marathon route, and crowds headed to the Games' closing ceremony, a
small group gathered at the UK prime minister's office.
Despite the presence of ministers and prime ministers, business leaders
and heads of international agencies, all the attention was focused on
three slight, smiling figures - Ethiopia's great distance runner, Haile
Gebreselassie; Pele, the Brazilian footballing legend; and the
Somali-born British athlete Mo Farah, fresh from his second
gold-medal-winning run of the Games.
All three men were born into modest families in poor countries - Haile
ran without shoes and Pele made footballs out of newspapers and old
socks - but they had the good fortune to grow up strong, intelligent
and able to fulfil their huge sporting potential. The Downing Street
meeting had been called to discuss what more can be done to help the
many children who will not be so lucky, who will be permanently damaged
by lack of proper food in their early years of life.
Unlocking children's potential
The meeting was co-hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and
Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer, whose joint statement declared:
"As current and future hosts of the Olympic Games, we share a passion
to unlock everyone's potential. This starts with good nutrition and
disease control in early childhood. This is why today we challenge
governments, civil society organizations and the private sector to go
faster to reach the 170 million children around the world affected by
The meeting was not about the much more visible problems of famine and
starvation but about constant, everyday hunger. UNICEF was one of the
organizations that had pressed for such a meeting. David Bull, its head
in the UK, told IRIN, "Under-nutrition in the first thousand days of
life has a devastating effect on physical and cognitive development,
and those effects are permanent and irreversible. Once it's done, it
can't be undone. There are a number of countries where the majority of
children are stunted, and it sets back not just their development, but
the development of their country.
"There is a target, set by the WHO [World Health Organization], to
reduce stunting by 70 million by 2025, but we need to do a lot more and
do it quicker of we can. Every day more children are being permanently
Malnutrition is the underlying cause of one third of all child deaths
worldwide, according to Save the Children, which launched a report
nger-tackling-child-malnutrition> on the hidden cost of stunting in
February this year.
The event unashamedly used the glamour of the London Olympics to raise
the profile of a neglected issue and ensure high-level participation in
the meeting, but its focus was on practical solutions, particularly on
technical solutions that would yield high returns for relatively little
cost. These built on the recommendations of a 2008 Lancet report
enough-to-combat-malnutrition> which mapped out 13 cost-effective
interventions that if implemented in 36 countries, could reduce
under-five deaths by one quarter.
One of the commitments to come out of the event was a pledge of support
for research into drought-resistant and vitamin-enriched crops.
This was one reason members of the business community were invited,
especially companies working in fields such plant breeding and
pharmaceuticals. Introducing more nourishing forms of common crops,
like vitamin-A rich sweet potatoes, and distributing micronutrient
supplements can have a dramatic effect on children's health and their
ability to learn, as can such initiatives as the systematic deworming
of schoolchildren. GlaxoSmithKline, which donates the anthelmintic drug
albenazole for distribution through WHO, was among those represented.
Poverty reduction schemes will also prove essential to improving child
health. The co-host of the meeting, Brazil, has undergone an ambitious
and successful policy of poverty reduction, using money transfers among
other measures. Far fewer Brazilian children go hungry now than when
Pele was a child.
Lawrence Haddad, the Director of Britain's Institute of Development
Studies, says more and more developing countries are signing up to
initiatives like the UN's Scale up Nutrition (SUN) project. He told
IRIN, "We need to take advantage of this opportunity to lock in
commitment to support the 27 early-user countries, and to make it
harder for donors to pull out."
Making hunger history
Haddad says accountability and transparency - both on the agenda at the
meeting - are key. "Under-nutrition is one of those things it is easy
to neglect, and it's often hard to figure out how much is being spent
on it. Until it's very severe, you don't notice the signs, especially
if all the kids in the village suffer from stunting. And it's a
cross-ministry issue, so it's no one's business to track. So this is an
attempt to make nutrition and commitment to nutrition more visible."
Another invisible effect of malnutrition is its economic impact - the
World Bank estimates malnutrition reduces annual income in developing
countries by two to three percent.
Next year, Prime Minister Cameron will be chairing the G8 group of
wealthy countries, and last time the UK held the chair, it made a
special theme of developing country debt reduction, spurred on by a
huge public campaign in the UK to 'Make Poverty History.'
Before the meeting, the British government played down links between
its forthcoming chairmanship and this weekend's event. But one
participant says Cameron confirmed to them that he would use the G8 to
"take forward" malnutrition and food, and activist groups already see
that forum and Cameron's appointment to the panel on post-2015
development goals as a chance to mount a fresh campaign, and to try to
make hunger history as well.
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