Washington — Poorly fed children rob Africa of up to 16 percent of its potential growth, making investment in programs to end malnutrition as critical to the continent's future as building bridges and roads, African leaders and development officials said on Monday.
Almost half all child deaths in Africa are caused by inadequate food and it is the underlying cause of many diseases, yet approaches to tackling health and child nutrition are disjointed and uncoordinated, limiting their impact, according to World Bank and United Nations reports.
"Every child stunted is GDP growth that is left on the table," World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said at an event on the sidelines of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit which lasts through Wednesday.
He called it a "fundamental mistake" to neglect health and welfare in developing a national growth strategy. The lessons learned from Asia and Latin America are that economic growth alone will not resolve poverty and malnutrition, and that human development programs reap significant growth dividends, he and other leaders said.
The discussion marked the first time heads of state have sat down with ministers of agriculture, health, finance and foreign affairs as well business representatives, donors and development agencies to share ideas on how to make child nutrition a budgetary priority.
The financing needs are considerable. An extra $10.3 billion in new public resources would be required to scale up food programs in the 36 countries that have the highest levels of malnutrition and that account for 90 percent of children whose growth is stunted by inadequate nutrition, according to a World Bank report.
But those costs would be easily offset by raising GDP levels in Sub-Saharan Africa by at least two to 3 percentage points, experts said. The dividends for African economies range from 2 percent to 16 percent of GDP, based on UN and World Bank data.
Abdoulaye Diop, Mali's foreign minister, called it a worthwhile investment.
"If we are leaving one-third to 40 percent of our people on the roadside, we will not make it (economically). It is a generation that is gone and it will take 25 to 30 years to correct," Diop said.
Nigeria's Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina said the benefits of improved child nutrition include raising school performance and lifting overall intelligence levels, which in turn will deliver significant results over time to a country.
"We invest so much in infrastructure, in bridges and in roads. But most important is grey matter. We really need to invest in that," said Adesina.
The nutrition programs that have delivered the best results focus on the first 1,000 days of a child's life to promote breast-feeding, improve sanitation, and boost vitamin and mineral supplements, experts said.
So far programs have been uncoordinated, said Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda's minister of health. "We are making the mistakes we made 20 years ago with HIV/AIDS. We know what to do, but we are not playing as a team," she said.
Reporting By Stella Dawson; editing by Andrew Hay