UGANDA – Nutrition can be a driver of change or a barrier to progress, and, according to the Global Nutrition Report (GNR), which was launched today in Kampala, there are actions leaders of every country should be taking to end malnutrition in all its forms. 

Among the report’s key findings: one in three members of the global population is malnourished, and the problem exists in every country on the planet—yet the strategies (or “high-impact interventions”) available to resolve it are not being implemented due to lack of money, skills, or political pressure.

The GNR reports that in East Africa there are some notable bright spots and important progress in tackling malnutrition: Kenya is the only country in the world on track to meet all five World Health Assembly child nutrition goals by 2025, and Uganda and Burundi are two of eight countries on track for three.

These goals cover the critical indicators of stunting (when a child is too short for his or her age owing to malnutrition), wasting (when a child is underweight from malnutrition), overweight, exclusive breastfeeding and anaemia. 

At the same time, the GNR confirms that there is great deal of work to be done. In Ethiopia (as well as in Nigeria and DRC elsewhere in Africa) less than half of children are free from stunting and wasting, meaning that healthy children are in a minority.

In the whole of East Africa, only Kenya is on target to meet its stunting target by 2025, although several countries are making some progress. 

The GNR reports that in Uganda, for example, the rate of child stunting has fallen from 48% in 1988 to 34% in 2012.

While the rate at which stunting is falling in Uganda is currently roughly 2.5% per year, indicating progress in meeting the challenge thanks in part to combined government, NGO and donor actions, this is well below the 6% required for the country to reach its World Health Assembly target of a 40% reduction between 2012 and 2025.

Similarly, Tanzania has achieved a drop from 44% to 35% in the ten years to 2014, but more must be done.

“When one in three of us is held back, we as families, communities, and nations cannot move forward,” said Lawrence Haddad, lead author of the study and senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

“This not only jeopardizes the lives of those who are malnourished, but also affects the larger framework for economic growth and sustainable development. Simply put: people cannot get anywhere near their full potential without first overcoming malnutrition.” 

Childhood stunting and wasting remain serious problems: More than 160 million children worldwide under five years old are too short for their age (stunted), while more than 50 million don’t weigh enough for their height (wasted). 

Although countries are increasingly meeting goals for combating stunting and wasting, adult obesity—another form of malnutrition—is growing.

The prevalence of obesity rose in every single country in the world – including in all East African countries – between 2010 and 2014, and one in 12 adults worldwide now has Type 2 diabetes. 

Mohamed Ag Bendech, Senior Nutrition Officer at the FAO, member of the GNR’s Independent Expert Group, and present in Kampala for the launch, said: “The Global Nutrition Report is all about being equipped with the right information to take on the challenge of malnutrition, country by country. It is highly appropriate that the Report’s Uganda launch takes place during this important week when Africa is putting a focus on nutrition and sustainable development.” 

Mr Ag Bendech: added “As a continent we must push for increased momentum in cutting rates of stunting, wasting and other forms of malnutrition such as anaemia and vitamin A deficiency. It should be our priority right from the Regional to national and family household levels to invest in nutrition.

The evidence also shows that improved nutrition enhances overall socio-economic benefits with healthier and more productive population.”

Climate change is complicating global efforts to end malnutrition. Even small and seasonal fluctuations in climate can have big impacts on food availability and disease patterns, and these in turn dramatically affect children’s survival and development.

This means, for example, that babies born in India in November and December are taller on average at 3 years of age than those born in April through September. In a world where many are not eating enough and others are eating too much, food systems also need attention.

Many countries are not on target to meet World Health Assembly targets on nutrition. Most countries are off course in expanding exclusive breastfeeding, and six countries on three continents are regressing badly.

However, Uganda is a bright spot in this regard: it is on course to meet its target, with 63% of infants receiving exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life.

This means that they do not receive any other food or drink, even water – a healthy practice has been scientifically proven to improve nutrition levels among young children. 

Countries that are committed to reducing malnutrition have the capability to do so, according to the report. Investing in improved nutrition can have economic returns that outpace the U.S. stock market in recent decades. Investing $1 can yield up to $16 in economic benefits. 

The timing of the report is important after United Nations member states convened to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals last month.

Malnutrition is tied to many of the proposed goals—and when 45% of all deaths of children under 5 are related to malnutrition, it’s critical that leaders keep nutrition policy at the forefront of their decision-making. The report’s website contains profiles of 193 countries’ progress on improving nutrition. 

November 6, 2015;