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World Food Day 2010: Dramatic Results in Niger

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Next time you're on a plane, or walking through a park, take special note of the two-year-olds you may see around you. It's not hard -- they'll announce themselves, and often they might be classified as "chubby," in the very healthiest sense.

Today, on World Food Day -- I want to call your attention to the needs of many millions of children around the world that may not be so visible.

In countries suffering from absolute poverty, chronic hunger is a deadly threat to children -- and can cause irreversible damage during their first 1,000 days of development. The healthy two-year-olds we see every day remind us of this threshold -- they have been lucky enough to survive that critical period.

Of the world's nearly one billion hungry, some 400 million are children. And most often, inadequate nutrition begins before children are even born, causing physical and mental stunting, which in turn seriously limits their basic human development and economic opportunities.

The 2010 Global Hunger Index (GHI), released this week by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Concern Worldwide, and German aid agency Welthungerhilfe, clearly shows that adequate child nutrition is particularly vital during the 1,000 days from conception through the age of two. Damage caused by under-nutrition before the age of two is largely irreversible. Stunting affects about 195 million children under the age of five -- about one in three children.

If we want to tackle the devastating problem of global hunger and its complex economic and social repercussions, we must hold ourselves accountable for delivering solutions to child under-nutrition -- and making sure those solutions are accessible to those who need them most.

The components of proper early childhood nutrition are widely known -- including some basic things we may take for granted in developed countries, such as proper nutrition and health support for women before, during, and after pregnancy; exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant's life; and access to safe, clean water and sanitation. Yet millions of people lack access to these basics.

To reach vulnerable populations and protect millions of children from the often permanent damage caused by under-nutrition, decisive and large-scale policy actions must be taken that have widespread impact. During the September 2010 UN Summit on the MDGs, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Martin announced a joint U.S.-Ireland campaign, "1,000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future," which calls for greater accountability and leadership on under-nutrition from governments, aid organizations and all stakeholders.

Such public declarations of new commitments can be "game-changing" -- but what actually happens when the rubber hits the road? A lot of hard work and innovation must be also done on the frontlines: at community and household level in the poorest countries where hunger is chronic, such as Niger. Concern is currently using all the expertise and experience at our disposal to prevent a massive food emergency in drought-stricken communities there, and early results indicate that we have achieved considerable impact.

We applied lessons learned from Niger's 2005 devastating food crisis, and began tracking and preparing our response to the 2010 crisis well in advance. Our programs focused on responding early to minimize the crisis' effect through distributing seeds and fertilizer; reinforcing the ministry of health's capacity to provide nutrition support to pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under five; and an innovative initiative that starting distributing emergency cash -- before the crisis -- to the most vulnerable women via mobile phones and manual cash transfers.

Why target the most vulnerable women? In large part, it's precisely because they are the caretakers of children during those crucial 1,000 days.

Our early and significant response in Niger saved lives and reduced suffering -- initial results show that cash interventions have huge potential to constrain the onset of malnutrition in communities facing food crises:

  • Recent Concern nutrition surveys undertaken with the Department of Health show that "global acute malnutrition" rates in Tahoua District, where Concern responded, are at 11.7 percent-below the emergency threshold of 15 percent. This is despite Tahoua district being rated the most food insecure agro-pastoral district in the country in the Government's December 2009 food security study.
  • Concern is in the process of completing a side-by-side analysis of the impact of different types of assistance on nutrition status, but initial findings in September give some indication that general acute malnutrition rates for families that received cash from May onwards were almost 10 percent lower when compared to those that did not receive cash.[1]
  • Eighty percent of villages that were rated of being at risk of extreme food shortages in December 2009 are now looking forward to above-average harvests in 2010.

And that's not all. The mobile phone cash transfer initiative also empowered women enormously. Concern is undertaking research with the Tufts University School of International Affairs on the impact of the different response and protection mechanisms, including the wider benefits to families with mobile phones. In the short term, initial findings indicate that possessing a phone has had powerful side benefits in addition to facilitating the fast and cheap transfer of emergency family funds. The phones offer women a savings mechanism and a way to earn income through charging access to the solar-powered phone chargers we provided, and give isolated rural communities a means of communicating with family members and people outside their villages.

Families that had no access to food in April were able to reduce their exposure to hunger through buying what they chose in local markets. Children had access to strengthened nutrition and health care services, and the families who were most at risk at the beginning of 2010 are now harvesting millet crops with a significant increase in size and yield as a direct result of the improved seeds and fertilizer we distributed.

The action sought to prevent extreme hunger -- as opposed to a less timely response focused mainly on treating children who were already severely malnourished. The program ensured that families and vulnerable children had access to food by injecting cash into the local markets and keeping them functioning through the crisis.

"Before, our situation was very critical," says mother and farmer Gochi Idrissa, who has been receiving monthly cash transfers from Concern Niger since May. "However, thanks to the money I receive every month, I can see a change. Some of the children are even a bit chubby again."

A "chubby child" -- one of the most reassuring and universal indicators of development that I can think of.