An estimated 3.5 to 5 million children die each year from malnutrition-related causes—one death every six seconds. Yet childhood malnutrition is a medical condition that is easy to prevent with the right mix of nutritious foods and is effectively treated with therapeutic products available today. Recent years have seen great improvements in our understanding of childhood malnutrition and an international consensus has emerged around the provision of therapeutic ready-to-use foods—rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals—to treat its most severe form in children under five. So why do 55 million children continue to suffer from this devastating condition?
The answer lies in part in the lack of adequate funding for effective nutritional programs. In November, MSF released a report in advance of the World Food Summit in Rome that provided an in-depth analysis of funding trends in the field of childhood malnutrition and food aid. Despite the vast numbers of preventable deaths worldwide, the combined contribution of the world’s wealthy nations to combat malnutrition has remained flat for the past seven years (2000 to 2007). International assistance amounted to $350 million annually out of $11.8 billion the World Bank estimates is required to adequately combat malnutrition in 36 high-burden countries. From 2005 to 2007, MSF alone spent $40.3 million yearly—exceeding the contribution of a number of donor governments—on nutrition programming based primarily on treatment with the UN-recommended protocol employing therapeutic ready to use foods. MSF is advocating for an additional $700 million, identified by the World Bank study, as the amount of funds needed to reach the 32 countries with highest prevalence of malnutrition among their child population under five.
However, billions of dollars of international assistance are currently being spent on “development food aid and food security” or “emergency food aid.” When looked at more closely, MSF found that less than two percent of this assistance is spent on interventions targeted specifically at reducing childhood malnutrition. A reallocation of some of the billions of dollars currently being spent on food aid to purchase food that is appropriate for under-fives would go a long way to reducing the devastating effects of malnutrition in millions of children: stunting, increased vulnerability to disease, and death.
Moreover, the food aid system is rife with inefficient practices. The US government, for example, insists on shipping in-kind food aid overseas, which costs an estimated $600 million more than purchasing food locally. Furthermore, US food aid, like most international food aid, is made up primarily of fortified blended flour, in the form of corn soy blend. The minimal nutritional content of these products is poorly absorbed by young children, and therefore does little to prevent them from becoming malnourished.
In 2008, MSF treated more than 300,000 malnourished children in 22 countries, mainly with nutrient dense ready-to-use food, which, while more expensive than foods currently provided by the food aid system, actually work to prevent and cure severe malnutrition—and can be used on a very large scale. Immediate steps must be taken to increase the available funding for programs that provide appropriate nutrition to the millions of children in desperate need of assistance.