Maverick Citizen op-ed

Malnutrition is not a curse. It is a condition waiting to be vanquished

By Lawrence Haddad 18 February 2021

On Thursday 8 July, the fifth National Income Dynamics Study — Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) will be launched, assessing unemployment, household income, child hunger and access to government grants. Here, a feeding scheme provides meals to children in Lavender Hill during the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Each year, the South African Child Gauge is published by the Children’s Institute to keep track of progress towards the full protection of children’s rights. On 18 February, this year’s report was launched with a focus on the ‘slow violence’ of poor nutrition on the country’s children.

Lawrence Haddad

Dr Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, argues in the foreword that South Africa has all the capacities “in abundance” to prevent childhood malnutrition. Maverick Citizen publishes the foreword in full below:

This excellent volume describes malnutrition in children as “slow violence”. That may seem like an exaggeration, but it is exactly right. 

It would take a powerful malevolent force to inflict havoc on a child in the way that malnutrition does. Let’s put it plainly, malnutrition systematically destroys a child: it damages their chances of survival, their cognitive development, their immune system, their bone and muscle structure and their livelihood prospects.

But the wrecking ball that is early childhood malnutrition can be prevented. We know what to do. 

It is not glamorous, nor characterised by silver bullets. It is about all
corners of society working in unison on behalf of children’s rights. 

Governments must lead. They need to make this a top priority. They
need to develop an evidence-based plan and then finance, implement and monitor it. The progress in child nutrition statistics should
be pored over by the minister of finance as much as the economic statistics are. 

It is incredible in a country that is as well-endowed as South Africa that stunting rates are 27% and that they have been at this level since 1999. Kenya’s stunting rate has halved over the corresponding period and is now lower than South Africa’s. South Africa’s agriculture, social protection, health systems, water and sanitation systems and its schools and early childhood development centres all need to be mobilised by the government to fight this violence.

Businesses that act to make nutritious foods more available and affordable should be rewarded by fiscal policy; those that wantonly do the opposite should be punished by the same levers. Civil society should organise around the violence against children that is malnutrition. Where is the “extinction rebellion” against unaffordable nutritious food? 

Development banks should find ways to leverage private-sector investment from pension funds and impact investors towards small and medium enterprises that do good things for nutrition in the fields of food, water, sanitation and health services. 

Women’s care responsibilities should be properly recognised through law and remunerated accordingly so that women do not have to choose between working and taking care of their infants.

Active South African civil society and strong labour unions should be fighting for children’s rights from the point of conception. 

The world-class research community in the country should be documenting outcomes, calling out inaction and generating and testing effective solutions to combat this violence. 

Covid-19 is going to make all of this harder, but even more important to do. We must deny Covid-19 the legacy of a generation of children whose lives and livelihoods have been undercut irreversibly by the infection and the efforts to control its spread.

It is often said that when a dark situation cannot be discarded, then it must be because of a curse. Malnutrition is not a curse. It is a condition waiting to be vanquished. But this can only happen if there is an evidence-based plan to combat it, the political and administrative resolve to put it into action and the technical finesse to monitor and course-correct those actions.

South Africa has all of these capacities in abundance. The time to mobilise them is now. 

This report can serve as a beacon, showing where we want to get to; a spotlight on what is working and what is not; and a light in the dark for the 27% of South African children who have been cast there by the powerful forces of malnutrition. I was born in South Africa and I am a child of this country. But whether or not we were born in this land, we must all be stronger for South African children, now and in the future. The violence must stop and we must be the ones to stop it. DM/MC

Dr Lawrence Haddad is the executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. An economist, Haddad has led numerous international research bodies focused on food security and development studies.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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