Cambodia’s GDP growth averaged 8.2 % between 2000-2010, becoming the 15th fastest growing economy of the world, according to the World Bank. The country’s economic performance remains strong – 6.9% in 2011 – driven by robust expansion of exports, private investment and consumption.
This is a remarkable achievement for the Cambodian people, who have worked hard to overcome conflict and fragility. During the same period, maternal mortality has dropped by over half and child mortality by almost two thirds, already exceeding Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, malnutrition remains a serious problem. Nearly 40% of Cambodian children under the age of five are short for their age, according to the 2010 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey – one of the highest rates in the region. Twenty-eight percent of children in the same age group are underweight, 10.9% of which are dangerously thin and 55% anemic.
Why should we be concerned? Malnutrition has irreversible effects on health and human development. The first 1000 days, starting with pregnancy up to a child’s second birthday, are considered a critical “window of opportunity” when poor nutrition can result in stunted growth, diminished immune response, impaired intellectual ability, poor school performance and lower economic productivity. Early life malnutrition is also associated with increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other non communicable diseases later in life.
This means that the economic costs of malnutrition are substantial and need to be addressed to sustain Cambodia’s future economic growth. It is estimated that individual productivity losses are approximately 10% of lifetime earnings. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies alone cost Cambodia over US$140 million each year.
The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) recognises the challenge. In May of this year, the government convened a National Seminar on Food Security and Nutrition to strengthen the national response and has taken significant steps toward improving nutrition. However, tackling nutrition requires a multi-sectoral approach, including improved maternal and child care practices, and more equitable access to clean water, sanitation, and health services. This is a challenge for many governments.
This is why it is important for civil society, donors and other partners to work with Cambodia, engaging the principles of development effectiveness. The World Bank and bilateral partners such as Australia and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) can contribute by mobilizing global knowledge and resources to ensure that the full spectrum of development work ranging from health, water and sanitation to gender will have a positive impact on nutrition.