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The World Bank Group reported that there are 162 million stunted children in the world, of which nearly 60 million live in Africa. Statistics from the group also showed that only two countries in Africa – Gabon and Senegal – have child stunting rates below 20 percent.
Almost half of all deaths in children under five years old are due to malnutrition, resulting in three million deaths per year. Ethiopia’s efforts to combat malnutrition have been challenging, yet also rewarding. Research shows that in the past decade, under-five child stunting rates have dropped from 58 percent to 40 percent, child wasting has dropped below 10 percent, and the prevalence of underweight young children has declined from 41 to 25 percent.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the positive results seen in the country are due to improvements in infant and young child feeding practices, improved agricultural performance, advances in empowering women, stronger social safety nets, and better roads and infrastructure.
A conference exploring the state of child nutrition in Ethiopia was held at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa on June 15, 2015, where Ethiopian officials and international researchers in nutrition, food policy, agriculture, and social welfare discussed Ethiopia’s experiences.
Guush Berhane (PhD), researcher at IFPRI, says that the positive results achieved through the implementation of different programs have been extremely encouraging, while the rate of malnutrition still remains high. Capital spoke to Guush about the state of nutrition in Ethiopia and the necessary future steps needed to ensure continued progress.
Capital: Tell us about the conference and your presentation on social welfare programs in Ethiopia.
Guush Berhane: The conference was a forum to discuss nutrition from a multi-sectoral approach. It featured a number of studies done by various institutions. We agreed that there is evidence of improved child nutrition, and we discussed ways to use the evidence in future policy making in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the world.
Capital: What are the prevalent trends in child nutrition in Ethiopia today?
Guush: In Ethiopia, the trend shows that nutrition has been improving very quickly in the last decade or so. Compared to other developing countries in Africa, Ethiopia is doing really well. The achievement Ethiopia has made is comparable to what some Asian countries have managed to achieve.
Child stunting, which is one of the measures of nutrition, has decreased from 50 percent to 40 percent in the last decade. Child wasting has also decreased significantly. So the indicators show that child nutrition is improving a lot but the numbers are still too high; there is a lot of room for improvement.
Capital: What has been the major reason for those improvements? Given that some of those numbers are still too high, what steps need to be taken to further improve conditions?
Guush: There are a number of things that have been planned. The country now has a national nutrition policy, which is a big step forward. This means decision makers and other stakeholders are clear about the directions they will be going in. Nutrition is now being considered in programs that have been in place and in upcoming ones such as the Production Safety Net Project. In the past, the food security program in the country was not nutrition sensitive, but that has changed. Other programs such as the Agricultural Growth Program have also contributed immensely.
Capital: The conference noted that educating women and mothers has also been a factor for progress. Tell us about that.
Guush: We know from international experience and evidence that one of the factors for decreasing child malnutrition is education. In Bangladesh, for example, educating mothers has had a huge impact. Educating women will play a big role in moving forward. The fact that Ethiopia is investing considerably in elementary and higher education, as well as in programs focusing on empowering women has contributed a lot.
It is also important to include nutrition in the education curriculum. If that is not done, the effects education will have in reducing malnutrition will be insignificant.
Capital: In the past, the focus was on food security. Now nutrition seems to be central in discussions on food production and distribution. Does that mean that food security has been fully addressed?
Guush: No, it does not mean that at all. It simply means that food security and nutrition have to go together. We know that food security is improving, but we also know that problems related to nutrition will not change simply because food security is achieved.
We now understand that we need to implement nutrition sensitive programs to make better use of the food that is being produced. People need to gain access to a variety of food that is produced. Children also require balanced diets and parents need to learn this. Without a deliberate and conscious approach to nutrition, food security alone will not bring meaningful solutions to our problems.