Child undernutrition cost the economies of Central America and the Dominican Republic almost $7 billion – or 6.4 per cent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) – in 2004, according to a new joint study by two United Nations agencies today.
The study – carried out by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) – calculated the effects of hunger and undernutrition on health, education and productivity.
It estimated the costs, including increased health care and education needs as well as a dip in economic activity due to lower productivity, borne by the region as a result.
The study, the first of its kind in the region, found that 90 per cent of economic losses are caused by a higher mortality rates owing to hunger-related illnesses and lower educational levels.
“This study is a wake up call to the international community that widespread child hunger is not only a moral and humanitarian issue, but it has economic consequences as well,” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said. “Clearly, we will not be able to eradicate poverty in the region or in the world for that matter, until we take effective steps to tackle hunger and malnutrition.”
In the region as a whole, there are 880,000 children who are underweight, or approximately 14 per cent of children under the age of five.
“Undernutrition has very serious long-term costs, which are not limited to an individual’s life-cycle given the impact on intrauterine growth during pregnancy of malnourished women,” said Jose Luis Machinea, ECLAC Executive Secretary. “This cycle will more probably be repeated in their offspring and poverty will be perpetuated generation after generation if we don’t act to remedy the situation.”
The study also noted that current Governments are not to blame for the current levels of undernutrition in children, but rather decades of inaction are.
“We know that the Latin American region produces three times the amount of food needed to feed its population,” said WFP Regional Director Pedro Medrano. “This means there are grounds for hope, and an opportunity for Governments and society to help children under age five to break the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger.”
In 2006, WFP distributed food aid to over 5.6 million people in ten countries in the Latin American and the Caribbean region, including almost two million children in Food-for Education schemes and more than 850,000 mothers and children in maternal-child heath and nutrition programmes.
The study’s findings will be presented today at a parallel event during the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Panama today, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to attend.