Like dangerous roads, dirty water, and a lack of electricity, poor nutrition is part of the infrastructure on which extreme poverty festers. It undermines growth in developing countries and communities, gnawing at progress from the inside and preventing millions of people from reaching their potential.
But for as much life-saving and economy-growing good as they do, efforts to improve the basic nutrition of those living in the poorest parts of the world receive shockingly little investment from the U.S. government. Nearly half of all deaths of children under five are caused by a lack of the essential ingredients that their bodies and minds need to thrive. Millions more will survive, but physically and/or mentally stunted.
And to be clear: this isn't a conversation about providing more food. This is about helping people consume better food. Healthier food. And for those who can't, it's about ensuring they can access the essential ingredients that make the body and mind reach its full potential.
Improving nutrition is, first and foremost, a humanitarian imperative, but it is also an impressively efficient investment in economic growth -- for every $1 spent by donors on basic nutrition programs, $16 is returned to the local economy. That's an incredible yield, and one unrivaled in the development space.
The ties between nutrition and economic prosperity run deep.
Malnutrition limits a child's educational experience. Study after study has shown the impact that a lack of nutrition -- both for a mother and a child -- has on a child's lifelong educational attainment, and in the classroom, students who are with malnutrition-induced cognitive difficulties struggle to focus and learn. Getting nutrition right in the first 1,000 days between conception and the second year of life can either start a child on an equal playing field, or have them playing catch up for the rest of their lives.
Malnutrition limits someone's lifetime productivity and earning potential. The level of nutrition a child receives in its first few years has a direct impact on her potential later in life, with malnutrition quietly setting limits on her physical and mental development before she even steps foot into a classroom. Breastfeeding, alone, can mean three IQ points to a newborn child. That difference translates directly to earnings potential. A study following children for 30 years in Brazil found that, when all else is equal, children that were breastfed earned a third more than those who weren't.
Malnutrition has a disproportionate impact on girls and women. Poverty is sexist, yet women and girls hold the keys to ending the intergenerational cycle of hunger, malnutrition and poverty. More than 500 million women worldwide suffer from anemia, significantly affecting not only their health, but often their professional productivity. Take, for example, the case of women farmers, who produce more than half of the food grown in the world. A female farmer suffering from anemia is likely to be able to work fewer hours and get fewer crops to market, reducing her earning potential and starving the market of her full agricultural yield. Twenty percent of anemic women die from the condition, eliminating their income entirely and creating scores of motherless households.
Malnutrition limits a country's economic potential. Aggregated, the malnourishment of hundreds of thousands of a country's citizens becomes an incredible drag on its economy. The World Food Programme has extensively documented the cost of hunger on the economies of African countries. In Ethiopia, for example, hunger took a 16.5 percent toll on the country's gross domestic product in 2009. On a national level, the combination of additional healthcare costs and lost productivity is devastating.
Malnutrition costs more to fight the later in life it is addressed. Improving the nutrition of mothers, newborn babies, and children costs significantly less than addressing the healthcare, academic, and special professional needs of stunted adults. For a sense of the cost: Just $2 per pregnancy gets women the iron and folic acid they need to prevent a significant number of maternal deaths, and just 44 cents per child per year would buy Vitamin A supplements capable of preventing more than 150,000 child deaths per year.
The truth is: the future of foreign assistance isn't simply more aid, it's better aid. It's innovative programs, public-private partnerships, and the prioritization of investments in efficiently fighting the causes of extreme poverty, instead of merely its symptoms. Investment in getting the world's poorest people the nutrition they need to thrive not only save lives... it helps grow economies.
When world leaders gather in Brazil in August to pledge funds to improve basic nutrition in the least-developed countries, the United States must go with a strong pledge -- certainly stronger than the $108 million proposed in the global health area of the President's FY17 budget. The Nutrition For Growth conference is an opportunity for world leaders to improve and save the lives of millions in the developing world, while helping them grow their economies and stop extreme poverty in their communities.
This post is part of series produced by The Huffington Post and 1,000 Days to bring awareness to National Nutrition Month, celebrated every year in March. This year is nutrition's "Olympic moment" as world leaders will gather on the eve of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the "Nutrition for Growth" summit to make bold commitments towards ending malnutrition, which is responsible for nearly half of all childhood deaths around the world. Join the conversation by using the #MarchForNutrition hashtag, and read all posts in the series here.