Nutrition in Latin America: a policy menu to improve emergency responses

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Women and children first! Sound familiar? The gentlemanly rule of Titanic-fame seems to have expanded in our collective minds to all emergency situations.

It seems, though, that in Latin America and the Caribbean this time-honored rule is not written in stone. As it turns out, women and children are generally not at the forefront of public efforts in crises and emergency situations.

Let me explain. With natural disasters, economic upheavals, and long spells of food price rises stubbornly hitting our region, one would have thought that countries would be well prepared to get the most vulnerable out of harm’s way and preserve their future potential.

Indeed we are, in many respects. We are, for example, more prepared to cope with the risk of natural disasters and economic volatility, thanks to safety nets and sound socio-economic policies. However, a recent consultation spanning 12 Latin American countries reveals that most crisis-response policies and programs overlook the needs of mothers and young children, particularly when it comes to nutrition. Truth is Latin America is still one of the most unequal regions in the world, where the eradication of under-nutrition is still an unfinished agenda.

It’s frankly startling that under-nutrition rates among indigenous people and the poorest children are comparable to rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the region’s significant socio-economic gains in the past decade, 7.2 million children are too short for their age as a result of malnutrition and millions of mothers are anemic. A recent Harvard study pointed out that the average height of poor women in Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, has not increased in the last 50 years.

That so little attention is paid to sound nutrition puzzles me. Time and again, it has been proven that investing in maternal and child nutrition is a win-win for all.

Just this year the Copenhagen Consensus ranked a bundled set of actions or ‘interventions’ (as we call them in our trade) to reduce under-nutrition among preschoolers as the best mechanism to advance global welfare. It urged policy makers and philanthropists to make fighting malnourishment their top priority. These ‘interventions’ would return US$30 for every US$1 spent. Yet, investments in nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean are lagging far behind other areas.

Simple actions go a long way

Promoting and protecting breastfeeding should be a top priority action, especially in times of crisis. Breast milk is cost-free, highly nutritious and protects children from diseases such as diarrhea.

Some of these actions are simple but trigger powerful results to protect children from shocks and emergencies. They include:

    · Preventing micronutrient deficiencies by providing micronutrient powders;
    · Treating acute malnutrition, notably with the provision of ready-to-use foods;
    · Treating diarrhea through the combined use of oral rehydration solution and zinc;
    · Prioritizing pregnant and lactating women along with children under 2 in the distribution of food and water rations

Efficient collaboration and coordination across sectors would certainly lead to more efficient use of resources. Improving weak surveillance and monitoring systems to speed up informed decision making in unsteady times, is also a key. Most countries need to update their policies to the latest internationally validated nutrition evidence.

I hope this blog contributes to keep going a conversation about nutrition. The loss in human capital and the subsequent loss in economic potential due to malnourishment is far too costly. For more on this, take a look at this recently published toolkit.

I hope this blog contributes to keep going a conversation about nutrition. For more on this, take a look at this recently published toolkit.

How to Protect and Promote the Nutrition of Mothers and Children: A Toolkit for Stable, Crisis, and Emergency Situations was designed to help countries advance their policies and practices to better protect the most vulnerable in times of intense nutritional needs. Feel free to download and pass it along and share it on social media.

As we as an institution ask ourselves ‘What will it take to end poverty?’ I’m convinced that ensuring optimal nutrition for all mothers and children at all times is certainly part of the answer.

To ensure the right of everyone to a productive and healthy life, prioritizing good nutrition during the first 1000 days of life is crucial. Countries need to invest in this powerful window of opportunity: from the moment a child is conceived until she or he is two years old. The loss in human capital and the subsequent loss in economic potential due to malnourishment is far too costly.


Marie Chantal Messier

World Bank Senior Nutrition Specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean

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