Opinion: As the global child hunger crisis worsens, the world must act

Netsanet feeds her two year daughter porridge made of balanced nutritional ingredients. Photo by: Nahom Tesfaye / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

A child dying from hunger is a terrible tragedy. As individuals who have committed our careers to combating hunger and malnutrition, we have unfortunately seen this calamity up close and personal. From witnessing the deaths of dozens of children in an internally displaced persons camp, to seeing a child’s body and brain stunted by malnutrition, we can testify to the overwhelming sadness and injustice of a hungry child.

The world has made astonishing progress in combating preventable child deaths, cutting the under-5 mortality rate by more than half since 1990, thanks to proven interventions in health and development. Despite these laudable advances, an unconscionable 15,000 children under the age of 5 still die every day. Almost half of these deaths (nearly 3 million each year) are caused by malnutrition.

But now for the first time in decades, global hunger is on the rise, with an estimated 815 million people now suffering from chronic undernourishment. We chant “never again” every time we respond to a famine, yet famine is once again threatening to kill 21 million people in four countries.

This unfolding catastrophe may seem daunting, but cost-effective nutrition interventions, particularly those focused on the critical 1,000-day window between pregnancy and age 2, are high-impact and are already saving lives where they are found. In 2016, the World Bank estimated that by spending just $10 per child per year between 2016-2025 on interventions such as exclusive breastfeeding and micronutrient supplementation, the world could save the lives of 3.7 million children. Further, the economic benefits of these investments are some of the best in global health and development. For example, every dollar invested in breastfeeding provides up to $35 in returns. Simply put, investing in nutrition works.

Although we know how to fight this issue, action requires investment. Without a global coalition of leaders dedicated to the plight of these children, the world will not be able to mobilize the relatively modest amount of resources needed to overcome the devastating consequences of malnutrition.

We were encouraged by the gathering of donors, governments, and civil society partners at the Global Nutrition Summit in Milan, Italy, this month, which was an important step in building the necessary political commitment. New funding was mobilized from a variety of sources. We were particularly encouraged to see philanthropic donors contribute significant new resources, including $100 million from the U.S.-based Eleanor Crook Foundation. In a tremendous reflection of American generosity and leadership, U.S. civil society organizations pledged approximately $1.17 billion dollars for nutrition in 2018 through 2020.

These announcements build off of a long history of U.S. government leadership in this fight. In 2016 alone, 27 million children were reached, thanks to U.S. government investments in nutrition interventions. Bipartisan congressional champions continue to work across the aisle, preserving and increasing critical funding for nutrition while championing legislative initiatives that provide the framework for future successes.

These are important achievements, but the United States can and should do more. At less than 1 percent of the federal budget, foreign assistance is a small down-payment on our security and prosperity as a nation. And, even though malnutrition is responsible for 45 percent of global child deaths, funding for nutrition is less than 1 percent of official development assistance globally. Furthermore, specific U.S. foreign assistance funding for high-impact nutrition interventions targeting the 1,000-day window, which includes $125 million annually through the designated sub-account for nutrition, is less than one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. international affairs budget. The U.S. government can change the course of history by urgently addressing this funding imbalance.

We also know that American leadership is about far more than money. Diplomacy is critical in mobilizing the coalitions needed for bold change, including ensuring governments around the world put nutrition at the heart of their domestic budgets and address malnutrition within their own borders.

Nowhere is this more evident than in conflict settings. Already called the greatest humanitarian emergency since the creation of the U.N. in 1945, the current famine situations in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria are deepening due to escalating conflicts. Conflict also underlies hunger in non-famine environments. The United Nations estimates that 60 percent of those suffering from hunger and three-quarters of stunted children globally live in countries affected by conflict. Every dollar spent on conflict is one less dollar invested in food in a child’s belly.

Diplomatic leadership at every level, starting with the U.S. secretary of state, is critical to addressing the drivers of conflict, food insecurity, and hunger, and ensuring the strong partnerships with global counterparts that are necessary to achieve lasting results.

The Global Nutrition Summit demonstrated that a wide range of actors stand poised to turn the tide on hunger and malnutrition once and for all. Now is the time for the United States to redouble its commitment to the fight against hunger and malnutrition through increased investment and decisive leadership. Together we can change the course of history, and protect the precious lives of our world’s next generation — but we must act, now.

Read more Devex coverage on nutrition.

About the authors

  • Tony hall profile

    Ambassador Tony P. Hall

    Ambassador Tony P. Hall is the executive director emeritus of the Alliance to End Hunger in Washington, D.C. Prior to the Alliance, he served 24 years as a United States congressman from Ohio, followed by 4 years as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.
  • Lucy%2520sullivan%2520headshot

    Lucy Sullivan

    Lucy Martinez Sullivan serves as executive director of 1,000 Days, a non-profit organization that advocates for improved nutrition for women and children in the United States and around the world.