by Jill Hagey, policy analyst
Over the past few months, the Sahel drought has sparked attention of news media and concerned citizens around the world. Throughout this media blitz, I have been struck by the sharp contrast between this coverage and how the devastating effects of malnutrition are usually portrayed. Malnutrition is often overlooked in favor of more “newsworthy” diseases, and it takes a crisis to focus our attention on this public health issue. Yet an emergency such as this drought—affecting more than 18 million people, including nearly 2 million children—is difficult to ignore.
As the third in a series of droughts in less than a decade in the Sahel, this crisis has affected parts of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. This year, the region experienced low rainfall, locust attacks, and violence in Nigeria and Mali. Grain production decreased by one-fourth, and prices increased to the point where few people can afford the food they need. The violence in Nigeria and Mali has prevented people from moving to areas with better harvests, and thousands of refugees have settled into countries without the resources to feed them.
What many may not know is that every year more than 475,000 children die in the region from nutrition-related causes, even when there is no crisis. In fact, the Sahel region has one of the highest rates of stunting—or chronic malnutrition—worldwide. Stunting is a persistent, long-term problem, and is often hard to see in children. The invisible nature of this public health problem makes it difficult to communicate the urgency of the situation and rally country and global leaders to fight for children’s nutrition. But early childhood malnutrition greatly increases the risk of death, and can lead to mental and physical impairment, which is almost always irreversible.
Food crises in the Sahel region will continue due to the constant threats of drought, political instability, and the pressures of poverty and population growth. And as each crisis adds to the underlying problems of chronic malnutrition, it becomes harder for these countries to bounce back and make progress on key health and economic targets. These countries can ill-afford to lag further behind in reaching their development goals. Crisis or not, newsworthy or not, combating malnutrition should take top priority to ensure that every child is reaching his or her potential.
We know what works, and there is no better time to act. Proven, cost-effective investments to decrease malnutrition include guaranteeing mothers’ and children’s access to essential vitamins and minerals as well as to the right variety and amounts of foods, and guaranteeing parents’ and caregivers’ access to information and support to feed their children appropriately. We can help by ensuring that key nutrition stakeholders have the evidence and tools necessary to mobilize public understanding and political will in combating malnutrition. Stakeholders can contribute in the following ways:
- National governments can incorporate nutrition plans and programs into their national strategies.
- Donors can increase their investments and step up efforts to mobilize additional resources for nutrition interventions.
- Implementing agencies can work together to employ and integrate nutrition programs into existing programs.
- Global and national food processing companies can increase efforts to enrich foods with essential nutrients and distribute these foods to those in need.
The Sahel drought reminds us that investments in nutrition should not only be scaled up during times of extreme need, but should always be an integral part of strategies across all sectors. With efforts to combat malnutrition on the rise thanks to key stakeholders, concerned citizens, and worldwide multisectoral partnerships, such as the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, we can ensure that nutrition interventions help children lead healthy, productive lives— regardless of whether or not malnutrition is in the news.