According to the most recent estimates from the Lancet series on early childhood development, 250 million children under the age of five in low and middle-income countries suffer from stunting and extreme poverty, putting them at risk of poor developmental outcomes. If current trends continue, by 2025 the number of stunted children will be cut by only 20 percent, just half of the target set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“The economic costs associated with stunting can be quite high,” said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Director of Research at the World Bank, at a Policy Research Talk on the topic. “Stunting affects brain development, lowers cognitive and socio-emotional skills, and also leads to lower levels of education and income.”
According to Emanuela Galasso, a Senior Economist at the World Bank, the high and permanent costs associated with stunting make the case for investments in early childhood development compelling. The brain undergoes critical phases of development in the first two years of life, and children pay a life-long price if this window is missed. But Galasso pointed out that it’s not only adequate nutrition that is required for children to reach their full potential, but also protection from infections and toxins as well as early stimulation.
While the challenge is complex, the World Bank and its partners are accumulating a growing body of evidence on how countries can implement effective programs to prevent stunting and promote early stimulation.
According to estimates, a package of interventions targeted to the first 1,000 days of life in 34 countries—including salt iodization, nutrient and complementary feeding supplementation for pregnant women and children, and nutrition education—could reduce the global rate of stunting by 20 percent. While not sufficient by itself to reach the SDG goal, the estimated rate of return on this investment would be 17 percent—a compelling figure when compared to other potential uses of limited development resources.