Ending hunger

Tuesday, 20 October 2020 00:34 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In a year that has delivered bad news relentlessly, Sri Lanka received a noteworthy ranking this week. Namely, being ranked 64th out of the 107 countries in the 2020 Global Hunger Index (GHI), with a score of 16.3 and a level of hunger that was termed ‘moderate’. Sri Lanka has made steady progress in this index, improving from about the 87th position in 2016 and consistently remaining ahead of other South Asian nations. 

The 2020 GHI released last week examines levels of hunger in 107 developing countries and scores them based on four indicators – the prevalence of undernourishment, child stunting (low height for age), child wasting (low weight for height) and child mortality.

Despite efforts to increase the nutritional level of Sri Lanka’s children, Sri Lanka still experiences a malnutrition burden among its under-five population and is behind the developing country average in child stunting. This issue, which has existed for many years has stumped policy makers resulting in numbers remaining largely unchanged. 

In the case of Sri Lanka, examination of its GHI indicator values reveals that while the prevalence of undernourishment, child stunting and child mortality have declined moderately, child wasting has gone up.

According to the 2020 GHI report, 7.6% of Sri Lanka’s population is undernourished. It also showed the country recorded a 15.1% of wasting and 17.3% of stunting rate among children under five years. The under-five mortality rate stood at 0.7%.

The irreversible damage of malnutrition to a child’s health and development is enormous. While the problem of wasting increases the risk of stunted growth in a child, which is usually irreversible even if experienced just once, stunting leads to impaired growth and development, including of the brain. 

This damage is lifelong, and not only hampers a child’s performance in school, but also limits their cognitive abilities, health and work productivity in later life, undermining a country’s sustainable national development.

Over the years, Sri Lanka has evolved many policies, and put programs and interventions in place, but these have proven inadequate to tackle the magnitude of the malnutrition issue, combined with the low financing for nutrition-specific intervention indicating rates lower than other countries in the region.

A multi-sectoral coordination mechanism under the Presidential Secretariat is aiming to convene the technical and financial resources of all crucial sectors including Finance and Planning, Health, Education, Women, Child Affairs and Social Security, Agriculture and Water, given the complexity of the nutrition challenge and inequities prevalent across diverse geographic regions.

Increasing national budget investments in financing for nutrition interventions is an essential part of this. Currently Sri Lanka allocates only 0.49% of total Government expenditure on nutrition-specific interventions, and 1% of GDP on nutrition interventions at large, which is low when compared to other countries in the region, including Bangladesh and Nepal. Implementation of a Multi-Sectoral Action Plan for Nutrition (2018-2025) requires funding support from bilateral and multilateral donors, which will help accelerate efforts to address malnutrition. 

It is therefore essential that this multi-pronged approach is successful. Not only is it a tragedy for any child to suffer from malnutrition, but their lost potential is a loss for their families, society, and the entire country. The greatest value that any country can invest in is their own people, and to have over 15% of that resource affected by malnutrition is tragic. The Government has to do better – we have to do better.