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Haiti: Human foundation key to recovery

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Haiti has rarely been a country that makes the news for the right reasons. But six months ago the whole world's attention was focused on this small Caribbean state as never before. We watched in horror the devastating aftermath of the earthquake that violently shook an already fragile society. Few will forget the images of Port-au-Prince, the capital of the region's poorest country, reduced to rubble. Most poignantly, the Presidential palace, its cupola still standing amidst the debris, served as a symbol of failure.

But what kind of failure?

Not of emergency relief. The world reacted swiftly to the needs of the people. Supplies arrived frantically, generosity was unbounded, and a major donors conference was organized. But what we quickly realized was that the earthquake had hit a population that was already at rock bottom.

Slightly more than a month later, an even stronger earthquake - an 8.8 on the Richter scale versus the 7.0 in Haiti, rocked Chile, impacting nearly eighty percent of the population. The number of fatalities, however, differed dramatically: 486 reported dead in Chile compared to over 230,000 in Haiti.

There were several reasons for this, one more visible than the other. The earthquake in Haiti was so much more destructive than in Chile because buildings in the island state were nowhere near the standard they are in "richer" Chile. But it is not just the bricks and mortar. The sad fact is that the human foundations were less robust too.

The World Bank uses two main indicators when measuring states of malnutrition in a country. Both focus on children, because this is the most critical period of our development. Our life health chances are pretty much determined from conception to two years of age. If, during this period, infants do not get the essential vitamins and nutrients needed, their mental and physical development is impaired, often dramatically. They do not grow as normal and they are likely to stay weaker, sicker and more prone to chronic disease all their lives.

Now look at malnutrition levels in Chile and Haiti. Those two major World Bank indicators look at malnutrition of children under five based on height and weight. In these categories Haiti has a malnutrition level of 30% and 19%, respectively, compared to 2% and 0.5% in Chile.

Poor people who do not have access to nutritious food for themselves or their children create a vicious circle of decline. Malnutrition has a devastating effect on the individual, but it also destroys societies. Malnutrition means potentially sick and weak adults who statistically do need more healthcare. But it also means more people who are economically less active, reducing economic productivity in countries that need all the strong hands they can get. The combination of higher costs and lower growth has been estimated to be at least two to three percent of GDP.

This is why, in Haiti, we have to start a change. A change in the way we re-build. Yes, we need bricks. But reconstruction must start with the stomach.

The World Food Programme has recognized this and initiated a major change in the way it designs and implements its feeding programmes. Under its new Nutrient Improvement Approach, it ensures that the strategic focus of food security -providing enough calories - is now supplemented by an additional focus on nutrition security - providing nutrient-rich food that includes the right balance of vitamins and micronutrients.

So, from the first moment when WFP began its emergency relief effort in Haiti, the organisation knew that nutrition had to be a fundamental component. WFP together with Royal DSM, one of its main corporate partners, was then and is now ensuring that nutrition is a key part of the recovery effort.

Together with the Haitian Government, the international community must ensure that the basics of a nutrition strategy are put in place so the country can break the vicious circle. If we can provide food supplements that nourish the children, supported by a long-term programme to help re-build local food systems, we help to create stronger conditions for economic growth.

Haiti should no longer be associated with poverty and disease but rather a case of the international community pulling together to rebuild its human foundations.

Nutrition really is the basis for a strong and functioning society. One could say it is the most important building block. Sadly, it makes a less good photo than those bricks used to re-build the Presidential Palace. But surely better still would be the smiles of well-nourished Haitian children.