As a new year begins, "there is still plenty to be concerned about"

A recent study funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation noted a remarkable global shift over the last few decades. Progress is being made in many areas of global health and in life expectancies overall while rates of HIV and malaria are falling. But, as the global community takes stock of this year and the new one beginning, there are still areas of serious concern.

A farmer with rice in in a drought-affected area of Indonesia. Humanitarian challenges remain as we enter 2013, says CWS's Maurice A. Bloem. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

NEW YORK – A recent study funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation noted a remarkable global shift over the last few decades. Progress is being made in many areas of global health and in life expectancies overall while rates of HIV and malaria are falling.

The Global Burden of Disease Study published in The Lancet also found far fewer children under the age of 5 are dying and infection diseases are also increasingly being controlled.

Does this mean the work of humanitarian agencies like CWS is near its completion  – that hunger and poverty problems are close to being solved?

Unfortunately not, Maurice A. Bloem, CWS's deputy director and head of programs, said in a conversation with CWS writer Chris Herlinger.

The study seems to be in line with recently published reports around the progress made on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, particularly around the first goal: reduction on hunger and poverty.

But as the global community takes stock of the year ending and a new year beginning, the report’s findings are a moment to reflect – and if those concerned about these issues dig deeper, there are still areas of serious worry.

CH: Is this report good news?

MB: Yes. These reports should stimulate all of us to continue our efforts to further improve not only our activities to end hunger and poverty, but also to improve measurement of health. If we have more reliable data, it can lead to shifts in health priorities and we can be more effective with our actions and interventions. These findings should be used for further debates about its meaning for policy and practice. It is required to hold each other accountable for progress towards goals like the MDGs. Lower rates of global hunger and malnutrition as reported in the study are something to be proud of, and all humanitarian agencies that have had a role in that – CWS, our local partners, the United Nations – should take pride in that accomplishment. It is absolutely great that we have made significant improvements in areas such as child survival and infectious diseases.

CH: Are there particular issues that you remain concerned about?

MB: Yes, unfortunately there is still plenty to be concerned about. First, the increases in heart disease and diabetes are nothing to celebrate – they indicate that the world is in many ways now dealing with new ways of being unhealthy. The world is still "out of balance" in how it deals with nutrition.

In its report on the study findings, The New York Times also rightly lifted up an important fact – that sub-Saharan Africa remains a notable exception to the global trends. Malnutrition remains a huge problem in that region, as do childhood and infectious diseases and problems still associated with maternal health.

As the Times also noted: "Sub-Saharan Africa also lagged in mortality gains, with the average age of death rising by fewer than 10 years from 1970 to 2010, compared with a more than 25-year increase in Latin America, Asia and North Africa." These are still deeply troubling statistics.

The prevalence of stunting – an indicator of chronic malnutrition that reflects the long-term nutritional situation of a population -- still remains way too high in Sub-Saharan Africa.

CH: Why does that remain a problem?

MB: A framework devised by UNICEF says the two key factors in causing stunting are a lack of dietary intake of essential nutrients and the prevalence of infectious diseases.

That the world is experiencing a global decline in infectious diseases – that is good news, though AIDS remains an important cause of mortality despite progress we are making with AIDS and HIV treatment. There are still a 1.5 million people annually who die of AIDS or causes related to HIV.

With high prevalence rates of stunting in the world, we probably have to focus on improving dietary intake. We have to again repeat the importance of proper nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life. In many parts of the world, that means improving a mother's access to better feeding products, and that needs to be a key component of our strategies and activities in solving the problem of nutrition.

CH:  Yet looking at the global picture, you can’t deny that there are signs that the humanitarian situation is improving right?

MB: It is easy for us who work in the humanitarian field to pat ourselves on the back, and these reports this year – like The Global Burden of Disease Study from the consortium of 7 partners responsible – are giving us encouragement as we continue our work.

As the UN noted earlier this year, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped everywhere in the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. In a few areas, the world is ahead of the Millennium Development Goals it set in 2000 to reduce poverty and hunger.

But as I mentioned earlier, rates of malnutrition are still too high – providing children with not only food, but nutritious food remains a real global challenge. That is why, in places like east Africa and Indonesia, CWS continues our work around childhood nutrition, such as the program we initiated this year in rural Kenya providing multi-micronutrient powder supplements.

And it is also why, in what may seem like a good year in terms of reports, we cannot lose sight of those important Millennium Development Goals – we can't give up in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. We need to look closely at the findings of the Study and ensure that we take it to the next level. We do need to continue our road towards reaching the MDG goals, but we also need to look beyond 2015. Only reaching the goals is not enough, but we also need to look at quality and not only quantity. Ensuring that children not only go to school, but are also able to receive quality education. Not only ensuring that we end hunger, but also to ensure that children receive nutritious food from birth.

CH: Can you elaborate on it a bit more?

MB:  After the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., President Obama spoke about that our first task is caring for our children. He said: “It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.” He was saying this in a context of a specific tragedy. Not to take anything away from the president’s remarks and this specific tragedy, but I heard the president speaking in a larger way: about a world that takes care of its children in all aspects.

If we don’t ensure that our children get nutritious food, especially during the first 1000 days of their life – which also means that we need to ensure to take good care of pregnant and lactating mothers -- then we will not be to able to claim that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this world the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and to their full potential.

 

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