Maverick Citizen

CHILD NUTRITION OP-ED

Let the children grow: Fixing South Africa’s stunting problem could be part of your legacy, Minister Godongwana

Almost a third of children under five in South Africa suffer from stunting, a largely preventable condition caused by chronic malnutrition in pregnancy and the early years of life. (Photo: healthtimes.co.zw / Wikipedia)

Ahead of his maiden presentation of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, new Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana will be looking to steer the country towards economic recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever steps he takes and policies he adopts will be the beginning of his legacy as the man with the keys to the Treasury.

In a recent speech at the National Investment Dialogue, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said that South Africa’s economic reconstruction and recovery plan envisages health as one of the areas we should invest in. Other sectors were energy, water and sanitation, and education.

Prioritising health is a good move, minister. For a nation to thrive, its populace must be in optimal health: as the popular saying goes, “health is wealth” — particularly in the early years of life when brain development is happening and when investments in early child health and nutrition result in long-term gains in human capital.

Unfortunately, in the South African context, it is during this very critical period where we fail to adequately invest in our children and undermine our collective aspirations for a flourishing and prosperous South Africa. 

Almost a third of children under five in South Africa suffer from stunting, a largely preventable condition caused by chronic malnutrition in pregnancy and the early years of life. This hidden hunger not only stunts children’s growth, but their cognitive development as well, leaving them in poor health and putting them at risk of poverty and unemployment in adulthood. 

According to the World Bank’s human capital index — which measures the productivity of a country’s “next generation of workers relative to the benchmark of complete education and full health” — a child born in South Africa today is robbed of the opportunity of reaching their full potential, in part due to the country’s high burden of stunting. It’s estimated that their future earnings will only be 43% of what they could have been if they were not short-changed by stunting and other development measures. 

Our high prevalence of stunting, higher than many of our developing country counterparts, threatens the future of our country and compromises social investments we make as a country in basic and higher education, youth unemployment and public health. Without getting the first building block, ie adequate health and nutrition in the early years of life, we undermine all of our other development efforts across the life course. 

Need for a maternal support grant

But Minister Godongwana, there is something you can do to change this trajectory. The child support grant (CSG) has helped mitigate absolute poverty in South Africa and continues to be a nutritional safety net for young children, but many poor children struggle to access it in the first year of life and it is not available to poor and vulnerable pregnant women, when the developing foetus is fully dependent on the nutritional status of the mother. 

Extending the CSG into pregnancy can go a long way to reducing low birth weight and protecting young children from stunting. Allowing women to access this cash transfer in pregnancy will also serve to improve the uptake of the grant in the first year of life (as women would be registered pre-birth) and help to ensure that young children receive nutritious food in those critical first 1,000 days when their developing brains are most sensitive to what they do or do not eat.

Considering that adding the nine-month pregnancy period will only cost us an estimated additional 1.2% of our total grant budget — and that the returns on investment in terms of reduced stunting rates and related improved education outcomes and employment prospects into the future are plenty — we think this is a worthwhile investment to get behind and a smart use of our limited resources in a fiscally constrained time. 

Minister Godongwana, this is your opportunity to turn around the fortunes of our children and, indeed, our country — make an investment in reducing stunting your legacy. DM/MC

Ofentse Mboweni is a Communications Officer at Grow Great.

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