G8: Reform Food Aid System And Generate Resources to Reduce Malnutrition

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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Toronto/Geneva, June 22, 2010: World leaders meeting at the G8 and G20 summits will not succeed in improving mother and child health in the developing world unless they fundamentally change how they address malnutrition and establish new sustainable funding sources to combat this treatable and preventable condition, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

Malnutrition affects 195 million children worldwide and is the underlying cause of at least one-third of the eight million annual deaths of children under five years of age. It can cause stunting, cognitive impairment, and lead to greater susceptibility to disease. The problem is inextricably linked with mother and child health, as malnourished mothers give birth to underweight children, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Many mothers living in areas of high food insecurity do not have access to foods like milk and eggs that contain the high-quality protein and other essential nutrients that their children need. Currently, most international food aid consists of nutritionally inadequate fortified corn-soy flours, which do not provide the nutrients young children need most.

“Foods we would never give our own children to eat are being sent overseas as food aid to the most vulnerable children in malnutrition hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia,” said MSF International President Dr. Christophe Fournier. “This double standard must stop. As the world’s leading food aid donors, G8 countries are uniquely positioned to have a major impact on reducing malnutrition. If world leaders in Muskoka and Toronto want to truly roll back mother and child mortality, it is imperative they commit to reforming key parts of the global food aid system. We know what works and what children need – let’s simply get it to them.”

In addition to improving the quality of food aid provided to young children, an effective overall nutrition response will require substantial financial resources. The World Bank estimates it will cost $12 billion per year to address malnutrition in the most-affected countries. In a time of global economic austerity, current funding from donors is insufficient, volatile, and unpredictable. Sustainable sources of funding through innovative financial mechanisms are required, such as the financial transaction tax currently promoted by the European Union. A share of the funds raised by such means must be earmarked to global health issues such as nutrition, HIV/AIDS treatment, and tuberculosis research.

In 2009, MSF treated 208,000 children affected by severe acute malnutrition in its programs. Although this is barely one percent of the 20 million children estimated to be affected, this represents more than 15 percent of the 1,200,000 children who received treatment.

“Nongovernmental agencies should not be expected to carry such a huge burden in fighting malnutrition,” said Dr. Fournier. “Donor governments need to step up to fill the gap and help the most-affected countries follow lifesaving nutrition programs that have been successfully implemented in countries like Mexico, Thailand, and Brazil. We need sustainable sources of funding, like the proposed financial transaction levy, that dedicate a share to global health - not the one-shot pledges that G8 summits are prone to deliver.”

The G8 gathering coincides with the onset of a particularly harsh “hunger gap” season in Africa’s Sahel region, the period when staple food crops are exhausted before the next harvest. Most countries in the region are already experiencing increasing rates of childhood malnutrition. MSF is operating emergency nutrition programs—and reinforcing existing ones—in Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali, and Sudan.

MSF recently launched “Starved for Attention,” a global multimedia campaign to highlight the crisis of childhood malnutrition and how increased childhood sickness and death can be prevented with effective nutrition interventions: www.starvedforattention.org