Science tells us that the first 1000 days of a baby’s life are critical for its future. Good nutrition during these early days makes a huge difference to a child’s mental and physical health. In my part of the world access to food and health care is a birthright, but for millions of children born in poor countries it is not. This is what the 1000 days partnership to reduce child under-nutrition aims to change.
Joining this partnership was the most important goal of my trip to New York during the United Nations General Assembly. On September 21, a high level event “1000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future – Partnering to Reduce Child Under-nutrition” co-hosted by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martins, brought together more than a hundred leaders from governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.One out of four children in the world goes to bed hungry. Under-nutrition is the leading underlying cause of child mortality, with more than 3 million children dying every year due to insufficient access to the necessary nutrients. Those who survive often face the irreversible impact of hunger on their mental and physical development. Their mothers also fall victims to hunger. Malnutrition accounts for 20% of the world’s maternal mortality. In fact, malnutrition leads to a vicious circle. The least developed and fragile countries are the ones that suffer from the highest levels of malnutrition, and at the same time, underfeeding is one of the main causes of underdevelopment. No wonder economists find strong evidence of high development returns on nutrition investment.
I have seen what malnutrition does to children during my trips to Niger and Sudan (see Sahel in the grip of hunger; Drought; First rains on Darfur; Together we can save the life of Laoure). What haunts me the most is how little it takes to save a life – just a small meal, as tiny as a baby’s palm, is sufficient. Even multiplied by 3 million, and then by 1000 days, this meal is a microscopic fraction of our global 50 trillion euro economy – we must be able to provide it.
So the pledge I made in New York on behalf of the European Commission was to bring up child nutrition as a clear and measurable priority in our programmes. We have already taken some important steps in this direction:
- A systematic follow-up on our nutrition interventions, which now account for EUR 517 million;
- A revision of our food assistance policy (see Our new food policy and why it matters). Now we also provide populations with money or vouchers instead of food. With this cash they create demand for local farmers, thus contributing to long term food security;
- A focus on the most fragile states, those where under-nutrition among kids under two is twice as severe as in the rest of the developing world.
However, we need to do more. We will advance our work through a dedicated policy framework on nutrition aiming to achieve four goals:
First: to promote a comprehensive approach to under-nutrition. This means providing the right nutrients for babies and children, while also taking into account other factors such as access to safe water and sanitation (sometimes children are under-nourished because they suffer from diarrhea or other infections, not because they don’t have food). It means setting up surveillance systems that identify the risks, so we can intervene before it is too late. It also implies follow-up programmes for children to make sure they continue to receive treatment, after initial attention.
Second: to advance accountability for better results, by tracking not just how much money we spend, but how many lives we save.
Third: to empower partner countries which have made nutrition a priority in their development policies. Focus on nutrition has a “multiplier effect” in other areas: it improves life expectancy, food security, education, women empowerment, etc.
Fourth: to seek bottom-up solutions, by placing resources and responsibilities in the hands of those who care most – mothers, doctors, nurses, community leaders, etc.
And I promised to come back to New York next year, and be held to account for what we have done.