Nourishing future champions

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 malnutrition.”

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 damaged.”

Malnutrition is the underlying cause of one third of all child deaths worldwide, according to Save the Children, which launched a report on the hidden cost of stunting in February this year.

Practical solutions

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 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.