Hunger is one of the strongest forces of exclusion. It keeps poor people poor.
Malnutrition is one of the most common causes of disabilities. It stops millions of
people from attaining their full physical and intellectual potential. It prevents people
from participating in development. Promoting prosperity and inclusion means we
have to resolve hunger globally - not only the acute kinds of malnutrition seen in
Africa, but also the chronic and often ‘hidden’ hunger still affecting this region.
To resolve hunger we have to address the interconnected challenges of malnutrition,
disease, declining agriculture, environmental strains and, of course, policy failures
and political problems. Deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Latin America and
Caribbean countries are making life far more difficult for many people across the
region, particularly those in remote areas. As always, those with no voice, no money
and no political power are the worst affected. Children are inevitably the first to feel
the strain. In some Central American rural indigenous communities, nine out of 10
children below five years of age are chronically malnourished. More than 1.6 million
children under age five in this part of the world regularly go to bed hungry.
You have to see these children and their mothers to understand their plight. They
don’t have the energy to laugh and play and grow like other kids. Their mothers have
the harrowed look of women who know that no matter how hard they work, their
children probably won’t get enough to eat, can’t go to school, and won’t fulfill their
dreams. The scars of hunger get in the way of learning, of productive work, of love
and laughter. It lasts a lifetime… and beyond.
The cycle of maternal and child malnutrition is one of the most important factors
determining whether disabilities will be passed on from generation to generation.
A malnourished mother is most likely to have malnourished babies. The chance of birth
defects and congenital abnormalities (such as spina bifida) is compounded if a mother
is malnourished now, or she grew up malnourished herself. This is an ‘inheritance of
hunger’ passed from parent to child. Being malnourished as a child often means
being malnourished through life and possibly physically or mentally disabled as well.
The most evident consequences of malnourishment for individuals include impaired
intellectual growth, loss of cognitive skills, weakened immune systems, and increased
risk of death among mothers and young children. At a national level, labor
productivity, economic growth and the ability to compete in the global market are all
diminished by widespread malnutrition.
No child born today (here or anywhere else) should be faced with such a fearful
inheritance. Ensuring good nutrition is one of the most crucial contributions that
parents can make to the survival and growth of their child. Supporting that child is
also one of the most crucial contributions that a society can make to a secure future.
Malnutrition will continue to ravage lives unless we act with greater unity of purpose.
To end this cycle of hunger, investments in nutrition through mother-child health
programmes, school feeding and food fortification are strongly encouraged. One of
the most efficient ways to fight poverty and exclusion is to address hunger and
The World Bank has recently argued that, “the Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs) cannot be reached without significant progress in eliminating malnutrition.”
In other the words, poverty is are compounded by malnutrition. This is not just
rhetoric; such statements are grounded in scientific evidence which documents the
importance of nutrition not just as an outcome of development, but as underpinning
development itself. This year (2005) nearly 11 million children worldwide will die
before they reach the age of 5. More than half of these young children—roughly 6
million—will die of factors linked directly to malnutrition. Those children aren’t all in
faraway places like Africa and Asia. They aren’t the victims of conflict and sudden
high profile disasters. Many of them are here, right in our own countries. They’re our
Quite apart from the emotional, humane response that child hunger generates, the
economics and sociology of hunger also demand that we act soon. Malnutrition is an
economic catastrophe at the regional and national level, and a social catastrophe at the
community level. Worldwide, hunger and malnutrition costs the economy billions of
dollars in lost human potential and health care expenditures. Productivity losses alone
justify greater investment in nutrition. In this region alone, overall GNI is 6 to 10
percent less than it would be with better nutrition for all. That’s equivalent to at least
US$104 billion not generated.
What would it cost us to start reaping those extra billion dollars in income? Just a
little over US$2 billion a year to feed every undernourished child under five in the
region, plus around US$2.5 billion to provide every undernourished school child with
a daily meal or snack. The returns from improved nutrition for children would be
substantial. The return from this investment would be highest for the poorest children.
Now is the time to end hunger, and our first priority must be children. Some progress
has been made over the past 20 years. In 1980, one in five people on earth was
hungry. By the turn of the century, that had decreased to one in six. These gains are
important. They demonstrate that progress is possible. This region has carried the
banner high. Past commitments have paid important dividends. However, much more
effort is needed before we can proudly declare that hunger is a thing of the past.
Good nutrition is about so much more than having enough to eat – it can also be about
preserving health and livelihoods. Even in relatively well off countries which grow plenty
of food, insufficient iron, iodine or Vitamin A can cause blindness, anaemia and mental
disabilities. Malnourished bodies are more prone to disease. Hunger also interacts with
HIV. They feed off one another. People who are both sick and malnourished are
especially susceptible to opportunistic infections, most notably tuberculosis. In addition,
good nutrition can help AIDS and TB drugs work their miracles; and healthy people are
more productive. HIV/AIDS is a not a battle we will win with medicine alone -- we need
proper nutrition, education, and clean water.
Hunger is not a war we can hope to win by fighting on just one front. We are going to
need to involve families – and mothers in particular. Individual communities – village
by village, town by town, will need to be helped to identify what it is that keeps them
hungry, and how to address those causes. Private and public sector groups will need to
do what we at WFP have been doing for decades: putting food and nutrition first.
None of us can afford to ignore this most basic ingredient any longer. It is by no
means the only ingredient in the recipe for true prosperity -- access to food needs to
be added to clean water and sanitation, basic health care and education. Commitment
to resolving child hunger must be everyone’s priority – from the home to the village
to the provincial, national, regional and global levels.
Government and donor spending on nutrition is currently too low to bring us much
closer to a world where children don’t go hungry. A large, focused injection of new
resources aimed specifically at eradicating child malnutrition would have a massive
impact. Poverty reduction strategies and economic growth alone don’t necessarily fix
hunger. You can’t do that without looking specifically at food and nutrition. Until we
see those two words at the heart of national poverty reduction strategies and policy
and investment commitments, children will continue to die needlessly from hunger
The Declaration to be signed by the ACS Heads of States this week includes
recommendations from the technical consultation organized by the Government of
Panama and the World Food Programme. It reaffirms member states’ commitment to
place hunger and malnutrition at the top of their political and social agendas. As First
Ladies, we urge you to take the lead in this important fight. Together we can find
ways to secure the resources and commitment needed to end child hunger. If we don’t
take up this mantle today, who will?