By Beverley J. Oda, Jan O'Sullivan T.D. and Dr. Raj Shah
Absent from most of today’s headlines is the fact that more than 13 million people are currently threatened by the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. In the Horn of Africa the worst drought in 60 years has devastated farmlands, uprooted thousands of desperate families who are migrating in search of help and led to the outbreak of a massive famine in southern Somalia.
As the world comes together in response, there is one underlying fact that—as long as it is ignored—could allow crises like these to reoccur. Emergency assistance is not a long-term solution. In order to mitigate and prevent future tragedies, we must develop long-term, sustainable approaches to food security.
The problem of hunger and undernutrition is not limited to the Horn. In nations and regions throughout the world, one poor growing season can devastate the livelihoods of millions. Even when rains come do come and harvests are strong, too many families are forced to live on the edge, one meal away from hunger or suffering silently from undernutrition. Too many children grow up lacking the nutrients needed to fend off disease or develop their bodies and brains fully.
Globally, 200 million children suffer from undernutrition and each year it contributes to more than three million child deaths. Countries and aid organizations have long attempted to tackle the problem of undernutrition, but as with many of the important problems we face, it cannot not be solved without a unified response.
Fortunately, we now have the knowledge, tools and coordination necessary to institute both short-term emergency responses and long-term preventive strategies. Critically, we also have the political will.
In 2009, the leaders of the G8 joined at the L’Aquila summit to call for increased investment in agriculture and rural development to strengthen food security and economic growth. President Obama then launched an international effort called Feed the Future that brought more than 20 countries together to invest in food security throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
And last year, more than 100 organizations and entities joined together to launch Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN): A Framework for Action. Critically, this coalition realized that nutrition is woven into almost every meaningful issue of equity both between and within countries – from health to agriculture to social protection and stability.
No infant or child can have a fair chance at life when they are denied the vitamins and nutrients that are the building blocks for healthy growth. Accordingly, SUN proposed three scientifically backed recommendations: promoting breastfeeding, increasing the intake of vitamins and minerals, and employing therapeutic feeding to prevent moderate and severe malnutrition.
Each recommendation was designed with the potential of every child in mind; it is crucial that a child receives critical nutrients during the “1,000 day” window of opportunity between a mother’s pregnancy and until her child’s second birthday. Children given those nutrients during that window have the best chance to fulfill their intellectual potential and contribute to the economic development of their societies.
In the Horn of Africa, we are seeing the full spectrum of undernutrition’s impact, as children weakened by drought, hunger and disease suffer, while thousands of refugees desperate for their next meal show up every day on regional borders. Undernutrition and hunger exacerbate every major health threat–from birth and pregnancy complications to diarrheal diseases to living with HIV/AIDS to pneumonia. They also threaten economic growth, political stability and invite regional conflict.
To truly invest in the potential of individuals, the stability of borders and the prevention of future disasters, we must focus on sustainably improving the nutrition of children, societies and the global community.
Beverley J. Oda, Minister of International Cooperation, Canadian International Development Agency
Jan O'Sullivan T.D., Minister of State for Trade and Development, Ireland
Dr. Raj Shah, Administrator, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)