Global scourge of hunger is blighting children’s lives

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It’s difficult for us living in Britain to comprehend the idea of going without food. Times may be tough, but most of us know where the next meal is coming from.

But a new report published yesterday by Save the Children, warns that a staggering 500 million children are in danger of growing up physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years, simply because they don’t have enough to eat.

The report – A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition – says that millions of families are being forced to cut back on food, and in some cases children are having to abandon school to help pay for food.

The survey, by international polling agency Globescan, was carried out in the five countries – India, Bangladesh, Peru, Pakistan and Nigeria – where half the world’s malnourished children reportedly live. It found that many families couldn’t afford meat, milk, or vegetables.

Brendan Cox, director of policy at Save the Children, says although infant mortality rates are down, more work needs to be done. “There has been massive progress in reducing the number of children under five dying from all sorts of preventable diseases like HIV, malaria and pneumonia. But one area where there’s been no progress is malnutrition.

“This is because it’s not visible, it doesn’t appear on death certificates. Children die from diseases like pneumonia but the underlying cause is malnutrition.”

Cox says malnutrition doesn’t get the media attention of other high-profile diseases and that the level of funding to tackle the problem is “pitifully low”, which is having a devastating effect. “By the time a child is two it’s too late and the damage done is irreparable.”

He says this should be a priority for world leaders. “Although it costs billions of dollars economically because it doesn’t fit neatly under health, or agriculture it doesn’t get the leadership it needs.

“Malnutrition isn’t like a lot of other diseases, it doesn’t need a cure and we know what works, because countries like Brazil have had excellent results in reducing the number of malnourished children.”

Some people might be surprised that India, an emerging economic power, has such a big problem with malnutrition.

“The images we tend to see of India are of Bollywood and cities like Mumbai, but some of the individual states of India are poorer than the poorest states in Africa.

“So although it has a growing economy it is growing from a very low base and the money isn’t being distributed equally.”

In other words it’s not the farmers and the millions living in rural areas who are getting rich. “Two million children under the age of five die every year in India from preventable diseases which is the highest of any country in the world.”

The charity says it is too early to say what impact the global economic downturn has had but the signs aren’t good. But with Britain taking the lead last year by galvanising the world to act on vaccines, and helping save four million lives, the charity wants it do the same with hunger.

Dr David Hall-Matthews, senior lecturer in international development at Leeds University, supports the charity’s call for more to be done to tackle the problem, but points out the situation has improved in the short term at least.

“The global trend is actually going down. Even three years ago it would have been 20 or 30 per cent higher and if you go back to 1990 it would have been twice the number,” he says.

“People in this country will have noticed prices of food going up and down over the last three, or four years.

“For people in Yorkshire it can be bad news, but it can be a disaster if you can only just afford to buy the food you need for your family, because if prices go up it means you can only afford half of that.”

Dr Hall-Matthews says one of the biggest concerns is the growing demand for food. “As more people in some countries become better off they are eating more, but as they get out of poverty this makes it worse for those who are still poor.”

Climate change could also have a major impact in the future. “Right now the situation is better than it was a few years ago but I’m worried about the long-term outlook. If even half the predictions about climate change come true then there should still be enough food to eat, but there will be less in the places where people are most hungry which could either lead to global starvation or migration.

“The way food gets distributed is not good enough to cope with such stresses and this is something that should concern us all.”