IN an alarming report on the state of global child nutrition, Unicef has declared that at least one half of the world’s children under the age of five are victims of ‘hidden hunger’. This means that essential vitamins and minerals are missing from their diet. The report also highlights that at least one-third of the world’s under-five population is either undernourished or overweight — obesity rates are surging in the developing world — leading to lifelong health problems. Moreover, out of the total 700m children in the world, at least 149m are stunted: because of nutritional deficiencies, they are shorter than what is normal for their age, and their brain and bodily functions may also be affected. Another 50m suffer from wasting. The report collectively calls the three aspects of malnutrition a “triple burden — undernutrition, lack of critical micronutrients, obesity”.

The report is a wakeup call for Pakistan which is among the seven countries that make up two-thirds of the global undernourished population. On assuming office, Prime Minister Imran Khan correctly identified stunting as a major cause for concern. According to the 2018 National Nutrition Survey, four out of 10 children in Pakistan under the age of five are stunted. This is the third highest statistic in the world. Moreover, nearly 18pc suffer from wasting while almost 30pc are undernourished. Unfortunately, Pakistan also has the worst mortality rate in the world, while the maternal mortality rate remains one of the highest in the region. Though the prime minister, in his maiden speech, promised a renewed focus in these areas, the overall thrust of development is still towards ‘hard’ investment ie large infrastructure projects. The only positive step in this regard from the PTI-led government has been the Backyard Poultry Initiative under which 5m desi chicken were distributed to the public in the rural areas of Islamabad, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan at subsidised rates. The intention was to provide adequate animal protein to undernourished populations and alleviate poverty, but these goals will take far more time and effort to meet than the mere distribution of poultry. The prime minister should revisit his promise of improving maternal and child health, which is key to realising the other SDGs. Investment in early childhood development will result in concrete rewards as those who benefit will go on to become part of a productive workforce that will act as a powerhouse for development by boosting economic and social growth.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019

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