How under-nutrition affects Africa’s projected economic rise

One of the pillars of the projected good economic performance of Africa over the next decades will be its labour force. As one pays a closer look at the socio-economic transformation requirements, Africans can no longer ignore the need to pay attention to human capital. We would like to argue the erosion created by child under-nutrition will have to be avoided. It is already a cause for concern.

Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Industrialisation or any higher productive economic activity needs individuals with utmost capabilities and in good health. Under-nutrition predisposes growing children, now and in later stages of life, to various forms of exclusion from health, education and labour markets, among others. This issue, however, is often left at the margins of policy debates on the continent. Consequently, this has led to policymakers paying little attention to child under-nutrition, as evidenced by the lack of progress particularly in reducing the scale of child stunting in the region.

Studies have shown that when children suffer from under-nutrition, especially during their first 1,000 days, they face incremental barriers in achieving their full potential in life.

The effects of reduced cognitive and physical capacities are long-lasting and irreversible, and will not only limit their chances of achieving full education, but also affect their physical capacity to carry out manual labour for example, with the same efficiency as those children who benefited from a healthy childhood. It is evident that the cumulative effects to the social and economic development of a country can become an impeding factor in the structural transformation of Africa.

Globally, there has been a call for action to position child under-nutrition at the centre of the development agenda. There is a need to build on this momentum and ensure that addressing child under-nutrition features prominently in the policy debates and does not get overshadowed by new emerging priorities.

Initial research results provide evidence of the profound effects that under-nutrition generates. From the educational perspective, stunted children attain 0.2 to 1.2 less grades of education, compared to children not affected by stunting, while between 7% to 16% of all repetitions in school are associated with under-nutrition. From the health perspective, between 8% to 28% of all child mortality is associated to the higher risk of dying faced by under-weight children. However, the biggest impact is in terms of losses in productivity, as current work forces have been reduced from between 1% and 8% due to child mortality, and 40% to 67% of current working age populations were affected by stunting during childhood.

An important challenge that stakeholders and practitioners face is the apparent lack of a ‘silver bullet’ to eliminate, or drastically reduce child under-nutrition. In the last decade, several countries in the continent such as Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Mauritania and Morocco, have had impressive reductions in their stunting rates, demonstrating that the path toward eliminating this scourge is possible. However, we still need to better understand the key drivers of change, and under which conditions these best practices can be replicated further in the continent.

In going forward, addressing child under-nutrition will be a key element and imperative for harnessing the demographic dividend in Africa. Africa needs to unleash its youth potential by creating a level-playing field with other regional and global competitors in science, technology and innovation to be able to produce food in bulk and affordably for all. This has to be done in tandem with other policy imperatives such as the need to build a firm human capital foundation, through improved educational systems and respond effectively to the capacity needs.

As we define the new agenda for inclusive development of the continent, we need to ask ourselves candid questions: what does reducing exclusion really mean for Africa? Inclusive development will be achieved when all our children have the same opportunity for survival, for nutrition and for education. Equality will be achieved when our youth have equal opportunity for employment, when households are able to maintain their families free of poverty, and when our elderly can enjoy their golden years decently. To achieve this transformation, we need to ensure that girls and women, boys and men, are at the centre of this process. More importantly, our policy interventions and research must be informed by credible data and statistics. Only then can we meaningfully talk about social transformation and inclusive development on our beautiful continent!

I can only urge the elimination of child under-nutrition and child stunting in order to secure Africa’s human capital and to attain economic development which includes all layers of society. After all, one cannot forget that human capital is the greatest economic engine of all times. I am convinced that, with our partners, this is the right moment to raise awareness and foster political will in order to push the elimination of child under-nutrition forward.

Carlos Lopes is executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The article was first published on his blog.