Growth Push Buttons?

by Juan L. Mercado

The good news is: Substantial strides were made, in the Philippines and elsewhere, to get more food on tables. The bad news is: 805 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. And levels of overlooked hunger are alarming in 16 countries.

That’s from the 2014 Global Hunger Index (GHI), released mid-October by the International Food Policy Research Institute. The ninth of annual reports, it focuses on “micro-nutrient deficiency.” Over two billion men, women and children are affected globally.

Little has changed in the nutritional status of Filipino children over the past five years, asserts the Food and Nutrition Research Institute survey.

The total of under-the-age-of-five kids who are “wasted”—too thin for their height—increased from 6.9 percent in 2008 to 7.9 percent in 2013. Slight improvements were clocked among those “stunted” or too short for their age, Rappler reports. There was a dip in the prevalence of stunting and underweight among children aged 5-10.

In this vulnerable bracket, poor nutrition inflicts “irreversible impacts.” “Their elevators will never go to top floor.” Indeed, “eradication of poverty that spawns hunger is “not just about getting to zero,” Helen Clarke, United Nations Development Program’s administrator, wrote. “It’s about staying there.”

The 2014 GHI examined 120 developing countries by analyzing three equally-weighted indicators: (a) proportion of undernourished kids; (b) proportion of under-five children who are underweight; and (c) mortality rate among kids under five.

Since 1990, hunger in the developing world shriveled by 39 percent. And a wide arch of 26 countries—including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chad, Thailand and Vietnam—slashed hidden hunger scores by more than 50 percent.

Improved tracking in sprawling India showed prevalence of underweight among children falling by almost 13 percent between 2005 and 2014. Due to its sheer size, gains in India helped South Asia improve its 2014 GHI score: Levels of hunger in the region have fallen by 41 percent since 1990.

Hidden hunger inflicts human suffering and crippling economic costs. Yet, low-cost effective methods for coping have long been available.

Take the Philippine experience with effects of salt iodization. Every peso invested in this device generates up to P81 in benefits. How many of such effective tools could the pork barrels of “Tanda,” “Sexy,” and “Pogi” have underwritten?

There is hard scientific evidence available. Leaf through just one case study done by De La Salle University-Manila Social Development Research Center’s Kent C. Tangcalagan on “Nutritional Knowledge and Roles of Women Farmers in Resolving Hidden Hunger in Claveria, Misamis Oriental.”

Better-educated women with older children have greater knowledge about micronutrients, it reports. Women who obtained knowledge from health workers scored highest. In contrast, those who sourced knowledge from institutions like local governments or schools scored lowest.

Most women decide, singly or jointly with spouses, on the choice of vegetables to raise or buy. But they have lesser influence on which fruits to grow. Surprise! Majority of women “predominantly control decisions regarding vegetable and fruit purchase and consumption.”

Vegetables consumed are largely sourced from their own production; these contain Vitamins C, A and manganese. But fruits consumed, containing Vitamins C, A, potassium and calcium, are mainly purchased.

Quantitative analysis revealed that the higher the nutritional knowledge, the higher the families’ budget allocation for vegetables. That goes, too, for household fruit consumption in terms of kilograms. The demand spurs farm proportion for fruit production. So pay closer attention to what they produce and to what’s needed to tamp down hidden hunger.

The De La Salle study also stresses the necessity of increasing women’s and men’s level of nutritional knowledge from moderate to high. Women are the undisputed decision-makers for food purchase and consumption. But the men are dominant decision-makers as to which vegetables and fruits to plunk down the peso on.

“Investing in nutrition is one of the smartest development investments we can make,” said Dominic MacSorley, CEO of Concern Worldwide. “What’s needed is more practical action on the ground. The global community must ensure that the post-2015 framework includes a universal goal to end hunger and malnutrition in all forms, and clear mechanisms to ensure accountability.”

Those translate to demanding work ahead that goes beyond the cockpit of local politics. Those living in deprivation are the most vulnerable. Three out of 10 Filipinos scrape along on near indigence. Worldwide, the number is 2.2 billion people—or 15 percent of the world’s population.

Add ratcheting pressures from increasingly severe climate change. We’re still reeling from the blows of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and had narrow scrapes from the last two typhoons.

“People’s wellbeing is influenced by the larger freedoms within which they live and their ability to respond to and recover from adverse natural or human-made events,” notes the UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Report.

Martin Luther King Jr., however, warns: Human progress is not automatic or inevitable.


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