Tackling inequality through investments in nutrition and ECD

The opening of the World Economic Forum 2017. Credit: .S. Embassy Bern/ Eric Bridiers via Creative Commons

The opening of the World Economic Forum 2017. Credit: .S. Embassy Bern/ Eric Bridiers via Creative Commons

The World Economic Forum bills its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, as the "foremost creative force for engaging the world’s top private sector leaders in collaborative activities to shape the global, regional and industry agendas." The Forum’s mission, improving the state of the world, has typically focused on various aspects of private sector led macro-economic growth.

Increasingly, however, the Forum has drawn criticism that its primary clientele is itself a manifestation of some of the greatest problems impacting the global economy — growing inequality between the rich and the poor within and between nations, stagnating national economies, the erosion of the middle class in many countries — as a result of the uneven impact of globalization, and declining opportunities for those at the bottom to climb out of poverty.  These issues have become more urgent as global instability manifests in mass disorganized migration, much of it forced by conflict within countries, and nations assume the kind of nationalistic posture seen in the vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and the growth of populist leaders in the United States and in Europe.

Prior to the start of this year’s Forum, which took place, January 17 – 20, Oxfam gave shock value to the problems of inequality, releasing a stunning report showing that just 8 people now have the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. Under the theme, "Responsive and Responsible Leadership," political, business, and thought leaders discussed topics that normally would not seem a likely fit for the typical Davos Agenda. Notable among these was childhood stunting and its impact on early childhood development (ECD), a priority issue for World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, who is a physician by training.

"What we’re talking about here is the fourth industrial revolution, and what we’re seeing is that the lack of investment in children — and you can see it in stunting levels and poor educational outcomes — is actually setting up countries for, I fear, instability," Kim said on January 19th at a breakfast event during the Forum.

He added, "If you have 38 percent stunting in India, if you have 45 percent stunting in Pakistan [and] very high levels throughout Africa, once the fourth industrial revolution hits…and so many of those unskilled jobs are gone, what are those children going to do in the future?"

Miranto (left) and Sitraka were born on the same day in the same Madagascar village, but Sitraka is chronically malnourished. Credit:  Tom Maguire/RESULTS

Miranto (left) and Sitraka were born on the same day in the same Madagascar village, but Sitraka is chronically malnourished. Credit:  Tom Maguire/RESULTS

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), childhood stunting, or being too short for one’s age, is one of the most significant impediments to human development. The condition is the result of inadequate nutrition and infection during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, the crucial window for critical physical and cognitive development. Stunting is irreversible and has long term effects on individuals and societies, including: "diminished cognitive and physical development reduced productive capacity and poor health, and an increased risk of degenerative diseases such as diabetes." The condition currently affects approximately 162 million, or 24 percent, of the world’s children under the age of five.

Stunting has caused visible inequality in childhood development in Madagascar, where more than 49 percent of children under five are chronically stunted, according to World Bank data. After a journalist delegation to Madagascar organized by ACTION partners in 2016, Huffington Post ran an article highlighting the severity of the problem in the remote African nation of 22 million people, where 92 percent of the people lives on less than $2 a day. It illustrated stunting through the photo (above) of two 5 year-old children born on the same day, in the same village, exposing the effects of chronic malnutrition. 

Madagascar is typical of those countries that will be left behind in a cycle of poverty in the absence of support from the international community, including investing in nutrition and ECD, and without strong leadership and financial ownership at the country level. This is crucial for families and for national and international economies in the long run. Evidence suggests that every additional $1 invested in quality ECD programs yields a return of between $6 and $17 annually. The annual Global Nutrition Report has shown similar outcomes — with some countries yielding more than 50 times as much — and that the annual global GDP losses from malnutrition are greater than what was lost each year during the 2008 – 2010 financial crisis.

The ACTION global health advocacy partnership recognizes the value of proper nutrition in promoting healthy growing children, eradicating diseases of poverty, and building national economies. We are encouraged that ECD and stunting were on the agenda of this year’s World Economic Forum, but talking about the problems of stunting is no longer enough. Governments, private sector, and civil society throughout the world must seize every opportunity in 2017 to commit to greater funding of ECD, including nutrition programs and interventions. This is necessary to eliminate one of the greatest barriers to childhood underdevelopment, malnutrition, and, by extension, the exploding problem of global inequality and diminished human potential. "Responsive and Responsible Leadership" demands no less.