22 August 2012 - The attention of large swathes of the British and international public was directed towards Downing Street on the 12th August for Prime Minister David Cameron’s Hunger Summit. Attended by sporting legends such as double Olympic Champion Mo Farah and Brazilian footballer Pele, and by a host of world leaders, including the Brazilian vice-President Michael Temer and the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, the Summit temporarily diverted the Olympic spotlight onto the devastating scale and impact of child malnutrition.
The Summit’s focus was on tackling the unfathomably vast problem of stunting, which affects around 170 million children worldwide and has long term implications on the growth and development of children. The Summit marked a significant step forward in raising awareness of this cruel and invisible condition which is often eclipsed by more “newsworthy” diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Malaria.
With the enhanced interest of David Cameron, whose Cabinet is preparing to host the G8 Summit in London next year, and with the backing of Michael Temer, whose country has led the way in reducing child malnutrition with minimal assistance from external actors, the Summit launched stunting onto the international agenda, recognising it not only as an unjust, preventable condition but also as a significant barrier to development.
The Summit’s major outcome was to call for decisive action to reduce the number of stunted children by 25 million by the start of the next Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio da Janeiro. This builds on the commitment made by the UN member states at the World Health Assembly in May 2012 to reduce the number of children suffering from stunting by 70 million by 2025.
In addition to this commitment, the UK Government announced new initiatives to invest in scientific research and innovation to create vitamin enriched and drought resistant crops, to work with multinational firms to improve the availability of nutritious foods and to improve the accountability of governments in developing countries.
For Action Against Hunger, the event played a vital role in raising the profile of stunting, however we believe that it is unacceptable not to have included acute malnutrition or wasting in the agenda.
While wasting is not on the same scale as stunting in terms of numbers of affected children (an estimated 55 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, of which 19 million have severe acute malnutrition), the rates of mortality associated with wasting are almost 10 times higher than those of normal children. Therefore treatment of this condition is urgently needed to save lives and it must be given the same focus as stunting. Recent research has actually proven that acute malnutrition numbers are on the increase, while stunting is showing a steady decline.
Furthermore all of the commitments made by the British Government at the Summit focused on measures to prevent malnutrition. We believe that a fully rounded approach is needed to address both types of malnutrition which includes treating wasting in humanitarian and development contexts to reduce child mortality AND preventing stunting to improve the quality of children’s lives. This approach contributed to Brazil’s impressive achievements in reducing malnutrition.
What was also missing from the agenda of the Summit was the acknowledgement that multiple factors are needed to sustainably reduce rates of child malnutrition, such as support and involvement of local, non-governmental organisations and, crucially, adequate funding invested in the most appropriate programmes. Our recent report, Aid for Nutrition, highlights the woeful lack of investment by donor governments in specific nutrition interventions that have been proven to be effective in tackling malnutrition and a forthcoming follow up to this report will propose how this spending gap can be filled.
The report also highlights our final point, which is that it shouldn’t just be the governments in countries which are receiving aid who should improve their accountability. Donor governments also need to be more transparent with their reporting of aid spending to prove to their tax payers that they are spending valuable aid budgets on the right interventions, when and where they are needed the most.
Despite these issues, the Global Summit was an inspirational event, which will hopefully mark the start of greater global efforts to tackle child malnutrition. The solutions will not come over night and the commitments made at the event and at future events must be followed up by actions which adequately address the need. However as one flame is extinguished, another may well have been lit to start an Olympic effort to save and improve lives.
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