Why economists are making the case for stunting reduction

By Marion Roche, Senior Technical Advisor, Adolescents’ and Women’s Health and Nutrition

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Approximately 162 million children are stunted.

In the global nutrition community the human costs of stunting are well recognized: stunted children complete less school, have less learning and earning opportunities, and females who become moms in the future are more likely to give birth to stunted children.

Intervening early in the 1000 day window (from conception to the age of two) and even earlier – pre-pregnancy – is recognized as most cost-effective way to prevent, as in many settings it challenging to reverse the physical and cognitive deficits from chronic malnutrition. Beyond the human costs, there is also an economic case to be made for investing in stunting reduction.

Every four years, the world’s leading economists and experts from diverse development fields come together to rank the best investments for development in what is called the Copenhagen Consensus. Nutrition is one such investment that is consistently ranked as a “best buy”.

Specific interventions, such as vitamin A supplementation, salt iodization, zinc & ORS for diarrhoea treatment, and support for breastfeeding and adequate complementary feeding, have all been in the top 10 best investments in previous years.

In addition, nutrition-sensitive approaches, such as keeping girls in school, improvements to agriculture yields and crop quality, enabling gender equity for women, and overall poverty reduction, are all necessary to sustainable long-term stunting reductions for communities and countries.

Recently, world leaders and experts met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the Third International Financing for Development conference.

A presentation by Dr. Meera Shekar of the World Bank and Dr. Robert Hetch of Results for Development at an MI co-hosted side-event on nutrition at the Conference laid out what it would take to  achieve the World Health Assembly target of reducing stunting by 40% by 2025. They emphasized that strategic investing in improving the nutrition situation for 68 million children would offer a long-term $45 dollar return on each dollar invested.

More specifically, every dollar invested in reducing stunting is estimated to generate an $18 return in the long run.

However, although many nutrition interventions look affordable on an individual scale, a more detailed analysis has been done to show what it would cost to deliver these interventions and reduce stunting at a global scale.

The Financing for Development conference was centered on funding the Sustainable Development Goals, the set of targets relating to the of future international development post-2015.

Looking at the return on investment (ROI) in nutrition and knowing that nutrition has such a profound effect on other areas of a person’s life, I think there is no better investment the world can make to reach the SDGs more quickly and effectively than that in nutrition.

This piece was originally published on the American Society for Nutrition Blog on 09/17/2015

Marion Roche headshot

Dr. Marion Roche

Senior Technical Advisor, Adolescents’ and Women’s Health and Nutrition

Dr. Marion Roche is Nutrition International’s Senior Technical Advisor for Adolescents’ and Women’s Health and Nutrition, responsible for research and programming in the scale-up of interventions to improve the health and nutrition of adolescent girls and women of reproductive age. She has a PhD in Nutrition, an MPH in Global Health and an MSc in Nutrition. Marion joined Nutrition International in 2011.

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