Macroeconomic figures are the first impression of a country’s development. As they say first impression is the last impression. Not so, in every case. Numbers are crucial for measuring anything and are the prime indicators of whether policies are moving in the right direction or not. However, the second or third impression may tell a story beyond numbers. The economists do give various theories to justify the relevance of these indicators, and rightly so, but many times these figures can camouflage stark realties. The GDP growth rate theories support the trickle-down effect of growth by mentioning how eventually growth at the top will reach the masses but the very name “trickle” may imply a time lag in which the socio-economic conditions may have drastically changed from the time of the start.
Pakistan has a population that according to the latest census has crossed 200 million mark with a growth rate of 2.1%. Pakistan is the fifth most populated country in the world just behind Indonesia. Not only does it have 60% of its population in the various categories of the young and youth but 34% of its population constitutes children in the early ages of growth. This means almost 68 million are children who are dependent on their parents to feed and take care of them. These are staggering numbers that are just overshadowed by so many other economic crises that have beset Pakistan. The fact that this segment is treated as just a population control failure is not enough as these babies and children have to be treated with special focus to overcome the pending crisis.
Having the highest infant mortality rate in the world is tragic enough but what we are doing with the babies who survive is even more shameful. DFID and UNICEF have conducted a study, titled National Complementary Feeding Assessment, which was launched by the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination highlighting the plight of CDP Growth issues ,i.e., Child Development growth problems. This report takes a detailed view on the type of nutritional value that the children are undertaking and what its impact is on their growth physically and mentally.
The study states that for children under 2 years of age hardly 15% are getting the right type of nutrition and diet to facilitate normal growth. Almost 78% children were deficient in proteins like meat, milk etc and lacked foods that can provide vitamins and the required supply of iron. This is of course due to poverty and also due to large family sizes that spread the meagre resources thin over multiple family members of low income households. These children with rapid growing up needs are not only under nourished but wrongly nourished too.
The study contrasted the growth between those who consumed dairy foods and meat products etc with those who did not. According to the study, children who were not stunted consumed more dairy products (60%), other fruits and vegetables (40%), eggs (31%) and meat (20%) than stunted children (55%, 31%, 23%, and 17%, respectively). The lower income spread over large family sizes is one of the reasons for this level of under nutrition. However malnutrition is not just due to less availability but also due to lack of education, awareness and the resultant care that is required in choosing the right type of food items.
Malnutrition is linked with education and awareness. Illiterate or unaware mothers will give junk food and stop breast feeding before 2 years of age. Most people feel milk and dairy products are too expensive for poor households. Many are not aware of the cheap foods that can provide the same food value. Some examples of cheap but nutritionally-rich foods are Maithi (fenugreek), Bajra (millet) and Jawar (sorghum).
Providing balanced nutrition is crucial if we want our children to have the opportunity to develop as normal growing up individuals and not become a victim of stunting. Stunting is present in most underdeveloped countries, but more so in Pakistan. There are 155 million stunted children globally and Pakistan accounts for one out of every 15 such children. This is not just a human tragedy, it is an economic disaster. Nutrition deficiencies in Pakistan are estimated to result in 3% of GDP loss annually which translates into $10 billion. Imagine the dividends we can earn if we are able to reduce this loss by 50% or more. We can service our debt bills without going to the IMF and other lending agencies. We can add to the creative talent of Pakistanis in the country and internationally and we can significantly reduce health and medication costs that are a result of under and badly nourished sickly children. Thus, feeding children better is not an additional cost in the budget but an investment in the future of the country. Well-nourished children are 33% more likely to escape poverty as adults and each added centimetre of adult height can lead to an almost 5% increase in wage rate.
These goals are not going to be achieved by just giving more food programs or projects that will be funded for 3 years but a longer-term approach in making our mothers healthy and educated who in turn are able to focus on doing the same with their children. Another study carried out by Pakistan Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) in collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) highlights the widespread impact of ignorance of this vital growth factor. The magnitude of malnutrition in terms of mortality, morbidity, mental capacity and economic productivity has been dealt in details in this research. According to this study, more than 177,000 children die every year in Pakistan before their fifth birthday because they or their mothers are malnourished.
A country that cannot take care of its babies and mothers is really tossing its future out of the window. The problem is the intangibility of this issue. While trade deficit is in stark numbers updated every month, nutrition deficit, health deficit, mental growth deficit are not calculated and are indirect costs that are highlighted in special studies once a year. This hidden indirect cost is seeping in the ecosystem, acting as termite that is eating productivity and performance. What we need is to bring it as a tangible, calculable cost in our socio-economic monthly reporting to make policy makers, public and media focus and develop a proactive approach to dealing with this wildly important but widely neglected “Growth” indicator.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(This news/article originally appeared in Business Recorder on September 17th, 2018)