Global Hunger Event should seek to make malnutrition history
Bordering Africa’s great contrasting development stories, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo is Burundi, a country the size of Wales with a population equivalent to Austria. I recently had the opportunity to visit courtesy of UNICEF UK where I saw for myself their innovative work focused on families displaced from their communities through conflict, women and girl victims of violence and children too often denied the best start in life. It was a timely visit in advance of the Global Hunger Event being hosted by David Cameron in London this weekend which will seek to use the Olympic spirit to galvanise action on global hunger. It also followed the inexplicable decision by the Tory-led Government to cease the UK’s aid programme in Burundi. A decision which is wrong both because of the country’s high level of poverty and in the context of the message it sends to other donors at a crucial stage in Burundi’s development.
Following years of civil war progress has been made in securing peace and stability. Infant and maternal mortality have fallen significantly and access to primary education is greatly improved. However, despite these advances it was shocking to learn that Burundi has one of the highest levels of child malnutrition in the world. Over 58% children are stunted. This means that they didn’t get the nutrients they needed in their first 1,000 days of life, resulting in irreversible damage to their physical and mental development.
I witnessed some of the ways UNICEF are working with communities to address this avoidable human tragedy. I saw a little two-year old boy in a hospital ward whose whole body was swollen from malnutrition. His mother was cradling him in her arms, and he was getting specially formulated therapeutic milk through a nose-tube to put him on the road to recovery.
I met mothers feeding their babies PlumpyNut, a high calorie peanut paste, and receiving fortified porridge rations to ensure their little ones stayed healthy. One mother was breastfeeding twins and had another baby on the way. Its families like this where the children are at high risk of malnutrition, with many mouths to feed and a lack of post-natal recovery time, so the clinic was also providing family planning advice.
Their training of community health workers who are active at a village level is particularly important. They are able to identify children who may be malnourished and refer them for help. This makes a big difference, catching the problem before it gets too bad, or complications set in.
In many cases the problem of malnutrition is not just one of quantity of food, but of quality too. Parents need to know how to include protein, fruit and vegetables to create a balanced diet, as well as be able to provide their children with this kind of food. In the village of Giheta, I saw an excellent community project that is addressing both knowledge and means. Mothers who have been successful in bringing up healthy children are trained by a community worker so that they can go on to teach other mothers about child nutrition as well as hygiene and family planning. They are called ‘beacon’ or ‘light’ mothers. These mothers are producing brilliant results – the trainees told me they could see a real difference in their children’s health after just twelve days.
Back in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, I met the Minister for Health, the Minister for Trade and Industry and the Second Vice-President. They all agreed tackling child nutrition is a priority, for health, for a productive future workforce and for poverty reduction. They are keen to work with UNICEF on the development of an integrated early years, early intervention strategy combining health, education, child development and parenting support. This would be pioneering for a developing country and would reflect what is now commonly accepted throughout the developed world. Namely, that early intervention from family planning, through pregnancy into the earliest years of a child’s life, is where we can make the most difference.
The Global Hunger Event is crucial in its potential to provide a new and much needed impetus in the mission to end undernutrition. There can be no greater Olympic legacy than to be able to look back and say London 2012 was the moment when world leaders came together and put in place an ambitious agenda to consign child malnutrition to history.
In Burundi I had the privilege of seeing simple and effective solutions to stunting at firsthand. But as a father I will never forget that little boy on the hospital ward with the swollen body struggling to stay alive. At the beginning of the 21st century it really doesn’t have to be like this.
Ivan Lewis is MP for Bury South and Shadow Secretary of State for International DevelopmentTagged in: Africa, Burundi, david cameron, Global Hunger Event, hunger, malnutrition, poverty, UNICEF
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