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Speech by UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake: Investing in nutrition in the Least Developed Countries


"Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues, good morning and thank you all for joining us today.

Let me begin by thanking the Government of the Republic of Turkey. I know how much work went into the organization of this Conference, which reflects Turkey’s commitment to international development and to the least developed countries.

I am honoured to join today his Excellency, Prime Minister of Nepal Jhala Nath Khanal, and I want to thank all our co-sponsors – Nepal, the United States, and our sister UN agency, the World Food Programme – for being here. And let me thank my friend and distinguished UNICEF alumnus Sir Richard Jolly for guiding us through a discussion to which I have so looked forward.

This conference was convened to address the continuing challenges facing LDCs. I can think of none more pressing than the one we are here today to discuss. For few things have a more far-reaching effect on a child’s wellbeing – or a nation’s long-term strength – than nutrition. And the situation is urgent.

Imagine a disadvantaged child, growing up in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Born to an anaemic mother, she is underweight from birth but does not receive the rich colostrum or early breast milk that can help to overcome those earliest deficits.

In the first two years of her life, she is often hungry and rarely if ever gets the nutrients she needs. Often sick, she grows slowly, but somehow, she survives.

If she is lucky enough even to attend school – and many are not – her undernourished body and mind make it more difficult to learn, with deficits equivalent to a 2 to 3 year loss of schooling.

When she is old enough to begin working, her diminished physical and cognitive development can reduce her earning capacity by as much as 22 per cent, in turn making it more difficult for her to feed her own children.

So, imagine the child I just described, and then imagine 195 million other children. They are all suffering from stunting – the irreversible outcome of chronic nutritional deficiency, often aggravated by illness, during the critical period of pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life. And the damage it causes to a child’s development is permanent.

Just 24 countries account for more than 80 percent of the global stunting burden. Of those, 14 are LDCs. In 7 countries, 50 percent or more of all children under five suffer from this terrible – and preventable –condition. In most other LDCs the figure is at least a third.

This silent emergency receives far too little attention.

Many of us have witnessed first-hand the tragic effects of extreme food shortages – and we have all seen images in the media of children just clinging to life, their bodies weakened from severe acute malnutrition. They appear on our television screens, challenging our collective conscience. Their needs must always be addressed. Their condition can be cured.

But consider also the fact that there are 10 times as many children who suffer from stunting. Unless we reach them in time, those children get no second chance.

Can there be any greater inequity than children deprived of the rights to live and learn fully, so that they may reach their full potential?

Can there be any clearer illustration of our collective responsibility to protect those rights than in a child’s earliest years – a fleeting window of opportunity that can literally change the course of that child’s life?

And can there be any question that addressing under-nutrition must be a priority for us all? For every nation has a stake in this, just as every LDC has a stake in supporting its children’s capacity to learn and earn – to help lift its society out of poverty.

It is a complex challenge, but the solutions can be as simple, cost-effective and easy to deliver as something like vitamin A, zinc and iron supplements, or the nourishment of mother’s milk, or iodized salt, a lack of which can reduce a child’s cognitive capacity and undermine school performance, or good child feeding practices.

It is time for the global community to recognize that nutrition is – and must be – more than a footnote in the food security debate. In fact, nutrition security should be an essential element of every LDC’s national development plans, as critical as clean water, as indispensable as education.

This is not only true for LDCs, it is true for every society in the world.

And this is not only the right thing to do. It is the practical, cost-effective thing to do.

There is strong statistical evidence that, in every region, the percentage of children in LDCs who are stunted has declined since 1990. That is the good news. It shows that progress is possible. But that progress is based on national averages. And too often, average, statistical successes mask moral failures, as the progress is concentrated among the most well-off, least-deprived population.

A recent UNICEF study showed that focusing investment on the poorest and hardest to reach children not only addresses this injustice. It can move us more quickly and cost effectively toward achieving Millennium Development Goal 4 – reducing child mortality.

The study also strongly suggests the same is true for reducing stunting and improving maternal health – which is critical, given the important role the period of pregnancy plays in preventing under-nutrition.

Can we afford not to invest in the learning and earning capacities of our citizens? In fact, it may be the smartest investment we can make.

The Copenhagen Consensus of highly respected development experts, which in 2008 recommended priorities for confronting the top ten global challenges, ranked providing young children with micronutrients the number one most cost-effective way to advance global welfare.

Clearly, there is a growing awareness that nutrition security is one of the most underappreciated development and human issues of our time.

In less than a year, the number of LDCs beginning to implement national strategies to reduce stunting has gone up dramatically. Several of these are supported by the REACH initiative, a collaborative effort to help governments attack the problem of under-nutrition.

Last September, the United States and Ireland, with the United Nations and others, launched the ‘1000 Days’ partnership, to focus greater attention and investment on the critical window of opportunity – from the period of pregnancy through a child’s second birthday.

And last year, the international aid community, including the World Bank, WFP, UNICEF and 100 other partners, came together to support the SUN Framework, a growing movement to scale up nutrition in LDCs and other places where stunting is so tragically commonplace.

Now we must build on this momentum, launching an even broader coalition that joins the forces of the food, health and development communities, integrating our efforts as never before.

UNICEF is committed to working with all of our partners in government and other UN agencies as well as throughout civil society and the private sector, to help propel this global movement forward. For the stakes could not be higher – and the path to progress could not be more clear. It is time for all of us to seize this opportunity.

The causes of stunting may be complex – but in the end, our choice is very simple.

As simple as whether a child can survive and then thrive.

As simple as whether a child can learn and then earn.

As simple as whether a nation can take crucial steps to lift its people out of poverty.

As simple as nutrition.

So again, I thank you all for coming – but, more, I thank you for caring about this critical issue. I am looking forward to hearing more – and to learning more – from our distinguished panellists. Thank you"


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work visit:


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