Take the cue from Peru
Stunting not only holds back a child’s growth and development, but it holds back the growth and development of a country,” notes the World Bank publication “Standing tall: Peru’s success in overcoming its stunting crisis.”
“Chronic malnutrition, or stunting, means children grow too slowly, reducing their physical abilities, cognitive and emotional development. It damages a child’s health, affects the growth of the brain and intelligence… and increases the likelihood that poor children will remain poor as adults… It perpetuates the cycle of poverty down the generations, holding back the development of children and the country.”
I’ve made it a personal advocacy to sound the alarm on our own crisis with chronic malnutrition manifested in low body height — a condition that has afflicted one in every three young children in our country for decades. It has hardly improved through time, and actually worsened again after 2013. One major culprit that had been around also for decades — i.e., much costlier rice relative to our neighbors — has finally been addressed with the opening of rice trade to foster a more productive, cost-efficient and hence stronger rice industry. The inordinately high cost of our food staple has always crowded out protein from the diets of our poor. Persistently high stunting could have a bearing on our having been ranked by a study as having the lowest average IQ among all the Asean states. I’ve heard some even blame it for the poor electoral choices our people keep making.
The good news is that it’s possible to reduce stunting rapidly. Peru has shown the way, and so have other countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Senegal and Ethiopia. The other good news is that the Philippine government’s awareness on the issue appears to be finally rising, even as the World Bank, in its latest Philippine Economic Update, lamented the lack of government-wide recognition of the problem. The issue has found a determined champion in Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, from whose vantage point in Malacañang a coordinated government-wide effort can be better orchestrated. He has presented a draft executive order to the President and the Cabinet seeking to establish a Zero Hunger Inter-Agency Task Force composed of 36 agencies that will roll out policies aimed to eradicate hunger by 2030.
I heard someone comment, citing progress (or lack of it) made by the 23-member Task Force Bangon Marawi, that this even bigger 36-member task force could be a formula for disaster. Indeed, it might work better to limit the body to a more compact and manageable group of the most relevant agencies, but clothe it with authority to impel all other government entities into action. It helps that the initiative comes from the office of the President, and would best be directed from there.
That, in fact, was key to Peru’s success. Their war on stunting was embraced by four successive presidents including the present one, transcending political lines. Rallying around the “5-by-5-in-5 Goal” to bring down stunting in children under age 5 by 5 percentage points in 5 years, stunting became a sustained political priority and treated as a serious human development issue. Malnutrition was no longer seen as a hunger problem, but a public health concern needing smarter and coordinated responses.
After spending massively in ineffective feeding programs, Peru looked at the global evidence and spent their money only on tried-and-tested methods, prioritizing investments in areas where it was higher, focused on results. Their “Juntos” conditional cash transfer program, equivalent to our 4Ps (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program), was effectively used to impel mothers to take their young children to health, growth promotion and monitoring checkups. These were well-managed and wholistically designed to support parents in tracking a child’s growth, health and nutrition while providing couseling to foster behavior change. Underpinning it all was what the World Bank describes as a “superb communications strategy led by NGOs, government and international partners” to bring awareness to all.
If Peru managed to do it, there’s no reason why we can’t.
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