Nutrition: The Best Downpayment on Future Prosperity Remains Chronically Underfunded

28/04/2013 22:23 BST | Updated 28/06/2013 10:12 BST

Despite malnutrition causing a third of child deaths, new research published this week highlights that nutrition programmes are chronically underfunded - with only 0.37% of total aid spent on basic interventions that are deemed to have huge benefits for children and for economic growth.

When children don't receive the right nutrients at the start of life, their bodies are weakened so much that they cannot fight basic illnesses such as diarrhoea.

For those children that survive, their future potential is permanently harmed. Malnourished children cannot fight disease as effectively - increasing the health care burden for governments. That their physical strength is diminished and their ability to read and write and earn money as adults is curtailed by as much as 20%, has grave economic implications. In 2006 the World Bank estimated that malnutrition could result in a loss of as much as 2-3% of national GDP.

But against the backdrop of this negative picture is an alternative with huge potential. With child mortality declining, many developing countries will experience a demographic dividend in the next 20 years - a larger number of children who when they reach working age - can earn money, fuel economies and create prosperity.

But these dividends will only generate pay-offs for countries if workers are healthy and can to be productive. Addressing infant malnutrition is a key way to ensure a healthy workforce to allow countries to benefit from these demographic opportunities. At a global level, investing in this problem now could add $125billion per year to the global economy, when today's stunted children reach adulthood.

Alternatively, if these children are malnourished, it could lead to a public health time bomb - with large proportions of the population, less equipped to lift themselves out of poverty, and vulnerable to disease, placing huge health costs on governments and donors.

With this phenomenon causing a third of child deaths, one might expect donors should spend a third of their budgets on dealing with the problem. You might be shocked if you heard it was 3%. But the truth uncovered in a new report by Development Initiatives highlights that donor spending averaged 0.37% of total aid in the past three years.

This is tiny in comparison to the money spent in 2011 on emergency food aid ($2.7billion), development food aid ($1.4billion) or on health - much of which is spent addressing the diseases which may have been prevented if children were not so vulnerable to sickness.

In 2011 the top donors to nutrition were Canada ($104million), The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($64million), EU Institutions ($34million), Japan ($33million) and UK ($33million). The majority of donors spend less than 1% of their aid budgets on the problem. France in 2011 spent $1.2million on the problem, Germany, $2.4million - somewhat embarrassing given the size of the problem, their economies and their aid budgets.

Much of the burden of malnutrition lies in India and Nigeria, where the governments should rightly shoulder the costs and invest their increasing wealth in their own human capital. In the west, these are straightened times, but donors - including governments and private foundations - will need to step up and invest in basic interventions deemed by the 2012 Copenhagen Consensus, a panel of international development experts, to yield dramatic returns.

On 8 June, the UK will host a 'Nutrition for Growth' event, aimed at galvanising political and financial commitments from countries, businesses, foundations and donors. This event is a crunch point for governments and donors. We can invest now as a down payment on future prosperity, or we can ignore the problem. But we must be aware that doing so is not only a human tragedy, but a matter of grave economic mismanagement.