Weighing the cost of malnutrition

Malnutrition in Bangladesh is costing the government an estimated US$1 billion a year in lost economic productivity, according to two recent US-funded studies.

Proponents of intervention say boosting malnutrition treatment and prevention would cost only a fraction of that amount and generate billions of dollars in returns over the next decade.

According to the government, the required cost to overhaul systems to improve nutrition is $4.2 billion per year, some $2 billion more than it receives in foreign aid annually.

The authors of the studies conclude that if the government provides effective nutrition services - estimated to cost $130-$170 million per year - the net benefit of these investments in terms of increased productivity could exceed $10 billion by 2021.

“Targeted investment in the most effective interventions to reduce malnutrition can make a critical difference in Bangladesh,” said Erica Roy Khetran, country director of Helen Keller International-Bangladesh, who did not participate in conducting the study. “However,” she adds, “it is important that these investments are based on evidence about what works best, and who to target, and how to implement in a way which reaches the most mothers and children.”

Despite the government’s commitment to fight malnutrition through the Sixth Five Year Plan 2011-2015, its policies are ineffective due to limited distribution of nutritional supplements, inadequate growth monitoring and lack of skilled personnel, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

WFP noted supplementary feedings provided to pregnant and lactating women, girls and children have failed to cover these groups’ basic energy needs, while moderate acute malnutrition is not included in the strategy.

Some 41 million people, 27 percent of the population, are malnourished and nearly half of all children under five (7.8 million) are too short for their age, a sign of nutrient shortage, according to 2009 data analysed by WFP. Another two million children are estimated to have acute malnutrition, weighing too little for their height.