06/25/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Changing the Future in 1,000 Days

Even as acrimony and discord roil the U.S. government and media, we can report good news that should make all Americans proud and renew their energy and hope.

Quietly, steadily, we are building critical mass in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, especially as it affects the youngest and most vulnerable. On Saturday, June 8, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the Nutrition for Growth Conference, at which governments and aid organizations pledged more than $4 billion toward the fight. And on Monday, June 10, the United States and Ireland staked out a lead position on the issue, calling all governments to account at Sustaining Political Commitments to Scaling Up Nutrition, an international meeting hosted by Bread for the World and Concern Worldwide U.S. in Washington, DC.

Nutrition has never been in the spotlight as much as it is today. The Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals, just released new evidence that underscores the importance of good nutrition during the first 1,000 days between pregnancy and a child's second birthday. Children who are malnourished are much less likely to reach their fifth birthday, and those who do are likely irreversibly stunted -- cognitively, physically, or both -- because they did not get enough nutrients.

At the June 10 meeting, the U.S. government's active leadership was affirmed by Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development: "Today, we have the opportunity to join our voices together -- to draw strength from the past 1,000 days and seize the next 1,000 days to achieve progress simply unimaginable in the past."

The ripple effect of under-nutrition in the first 1,000 days is far-reaching. On an individual level, a stunted child can lose as much as 10 percent of her lifetime earnings as an adult. Multiply that by 165 million -- the number of children under age 5 who are estimated to be stunted today -- and you just begin to scratch the surface of the true economic loss. Countries with high levels of malnutrition can lose as much as 8 percent of their gross domestic product because of stunting.

Joe Costello, Ireland's Minister of State for Trade and Development, emphasized at the June 10 meeting that countries should not just invest in scaling up nutrition on moral grounds, but economic grounds as well: "It's in the interest of countries not just because it's the right thing on an ethical basis, but also it's in the interest of countries to do it on pure, strict economics."

Political and grassroots resolve has been significantly strengthened through the 1,000 Days partnership launched by the governments of the United States and Ireland in 2010, and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement instituted by the United Nations the same year. These initiatives were designed to spur concrete action, bringing nations and nongovernmental organizations together to place nutrition at the center of the fight against hunger. Over the past three years, 40 countries with high malnutrition rates joined the SUN movement and have highlighted nutrition in their development agendas, while donor governments and nongovernmental organizations are investing in new and innovative ways to prevent and treat malnutrition and under-nutrition.

Much has been accomplished in the nearly 1,000 days that have elapsed since the 2010 announcement of the 1,000 Days partnership, but much more remains to be done. What we have seen in recent weeks -- first in London on June 8, and again in Washington, D.C., on June 10 -- is a promising signal from world leaders that they remain committed to scaling up nutrition over the next 1,000 days. World leaders pledged $4.15 billion to direct nutrition interventions, and U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations, including Concern Worldwide U.S., promised $750 million in private funds over the next five years for nutrition programs.

The next 1,000 days represents an entire generation of children yet to be born. If the promises made this week are upheld and the funds are invested in effective nutrition interventions, we can make sure that millions of children make it to their fifth birthday and have the foundation for a healthy and productive life.

We have never been closer to freeing the world from hunger and malnutrition. To back down now would be to deny the future.