Stunted brains, stunted lives
In my article last January, I wrote about the Philippine Business for Education’s recommendations to address the learning crisis in the Philippines. Ensuring proper child nutrition sits at the top of that list. This is because of numerous studies showing the explicit connection between nutrition and the learning capacity of our children.
In its 2018 World Development Report, the World Bank said that early childhood experiences, including having adequate nutrition, “have a profound impact on brain development—affecting learning, health, behavior and, ultimately, income.” The first 1,000 days in life are so crucial that they define not just how the brain will develop, but the rest that come as well: the ability to do well in school, learn important life skills, get employed, and lead a meaningful, productive life.
However, looking at the state of child nutrition in the Philippines, the situation looks grim. A disturbing report published in 2019 by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund said that 1 in 3 Filipino children under five years of age are stunted, or what we usually call “bansot.” And, according to the National Nutrition Council, the problem gets worse as Filipino children go through infancy, with stunting rates among one-year-olds at 36.6 percent—twice the 15.5 percent stunting rate among infants at six to 11 months old. Meanwhile, stunting rates remain at the 30 percent level or more among children three and four years old.
Is providing sufficient nutrition to this vulnerable group something beyond our means as a nation? We certainly don’t think so. The nutrients and vitamins that are crucial for brain development are well identified. But the sad reality is that having a nutritious meal on a regular basis is a challenge to pregnant women and their infants who come from poor backgrounds.
To be sure, our government has taken steps to arrest malnutrition in the country, with the creation of the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition (PPAN) 2017-2022. We believe the proper implementation of this national plan holds the key to building a solid foundation for our children, and will contribute to their future success in school and outside of it.
As outlined in the PPAN, our government should ensure the timely delivery of health, nutrition, early education, and related services to pregnant women and their children, as the first 1,000 days of life are critical. Malnutrition during pregnancy and infancy can cause IRREVERSIBLE harm to a child, and we should stop at nothing to prevent it.
Recognizing the role of an efficient food and nutrition system in the country, we should also work toward aligning all nutrition-specific program interventions—from community-based health support for pregnant women to the supplementary feeding of schoolchildren.
Lastly, our local government units should be given ample fiscal space to fully implement the PPAN. A unique opportunity to address this severe malnutrition problem will be available with the additional IRA allotments to LGUs resulting from the full implementation of the Mandanas ruling on internal revenue allotments. Earmarking a significant portion of the additional IRA allotments to address infant malnutrition, especially in the 36 areas identified by the government as having the highest prevalence of stunting and malnutrition among children, would be a major step forward. LGUs wield considerable power in terms of operationalizing national plans, and the successful implementation of the PPAN relies on having the right resources to secure the health of our citizens.
We are throwing our full support behind the PPAN as we recognize its role in ending malnutrition in the country, once and for all. If we are to improve our education system in crisis, we have to make the nourishment of our schoolchildren a crucial priority. If we are to produce better learners, we need to take care of them as early as we can.
These things are not too much to ask, and yet these are the best investments we can make as a nation. In our constantly evolving economy where literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills provide a path to success, ignoring maternal and early childhood nutrition is as good as throwing away our national development. We need to act with urgency to ensure that no learner gets left behind.
Ramon R. del Rosario Jr. is the chair of Philippine Business for Education.
Business Matters is a project of Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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