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OPINION May 20, 2019

Guatemala Steps Up Fight against Malnutrition

Nearly one-quarter of all children under five in the world suffer from stunting as a consequence of chronic malnutrition. The suffering of these 150 million children is unnecessary because malnutrition can be prevented with better health and dietary practices and quality water and sanitation services. In other words, it is up to us to induce change. This is the reason the eradication of malnutrition was included in the Sustainable Development Goals and was supported by the international community.

In Guatemala, where poverty affects half of the population, this struggle is more important and urgent than in any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean, as it exhibits the highest rates in the region: almost one million children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting. This jeopardizes not just their future, but that of society as well. The reason? Malnutrition has enormous consequences for the remainder of children’s lives, as well as for countries.

Children suffering from malnutrition are at increased risk of dying in their early years. Later on, they experience physical and cognitive constraints because, among other reasons, they can experience up to 40% less structural brain development once they reach their first 1,000 days of life, counted from conception, a key period for every child’s development. This, in turn, means that they often learn more slowly and earn less from their labor. Moreover, they are at greater risk of suffering from long-term chronic illnesses.

In other words, malnutrition compromises the most important aspect of a country’s future development: its human capital. Which is to say, its people. By virtue of their limited knowledge, skills and health, they are unable to develop their full potential as productive members of society. In Guatemala, the human capital index stands at 0.46, meaning that the productivity as a future worker of a child born today is 54% lower than it would be with full health and education.

This, in turn, triggers other consequences. Without productive human capital, countries cannot sustain economic growth, as they lack a labor force ready for high-skill jobs and are unable to compete in the global economy. Worse still, they cannot reduce extreme poverty.

The economic impact this entails is also significant. According to a World Bank report from 2018, countries lose up to 10% of their Gross Domestic Product because they failed to eradicate stunting when current workers were children.

Fortunately, Latin America has proved that fighting malnutrition is possible. The signature case in this sense is Peru, which in less than ten years managed to reduce by half its high stunting rates among children aged five or less: from 28% in 2008 to 13% in 2016.

To this end, the country recognized that the problem of stunting among children — one of the consequences of malnutrition — was not a hereditary problem, but rather had its origin in dietary habits and inadequate access to health, water and sanitation services. Furthermore, addressing the issue became an official state policy that required a long-term effort, resulting in four consecutive governments implementing the same policies. Equally, budget lines were reallocated to areas that contributed the most to reducing malnutrition, such as health, water, education and social protection.

This was accompanied by strong communication campaigns to raise awareness of the devastating effects of chronic child malnutrition, also known as the “silent killer.” Efforts also were undertaken to ensure that parents, local governments and medical professionals provided better nutrition and health services, and that they modified their attitudes and conduct to incorporate more appropriate dietary practices during the first 1,000 days of life.

Guatemala has already started down the path to a similar success story as Peru’s, with the launch of the National Strategy for the Prevention of Chronic Malnutrition in 2016. Recently, the government moved forward by signing the World Bank’s “Crecer Sano” (“Grow Up Healthy”) project. This milestone was made possible thanks to the commitment of various sectors of society, to address a challenge that is key to the country’s development.

Now it is important to continue working together to implement the project and thus obtain the desired results. This is an effort that we will continue to support with the goal of seeing Crecer Sano not as a utopia for Guatemala’s children, but rather as a synonym for a better future and better opportunities.

*Axel van Trotsenburg is the World Bank’s Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean