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February 28, 2017

Economy of the undernourished


February 28, 2017

Last year, the Global Hunger Index had ranked Pakistan 107 out of 118 developing countries in its list of hunger levels. According to the index, 22 percent of our population is undernourished while the World Food Programme estimates that six out of 10 Pakistanis are food insecure. Now, a new study, inaugurated last week by Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Ahsan Iqbal, says that the country loses up to $6.8 billion annually or 2.5 percent of its GDP due to undernourishment. The report pays particular focus on undernourishment among children and the effect that has on future economic growth. The National Nutrition Survey of 2011 had found that over 30 percent of children are underweight and close to half are stunted or have anaemia. The rural poor, in particular, were at risk of seasonal food insecurity. The situation hasn’t improved since then. Poverty, obviously, is the biggest driver of hunger and the state has been particularly lax in looking after the most vulnerable among us. But the problem is made worse by unhygienic living conditions and little access to clean drinking water, leading to high rates of diarrhoea and intestinal infections. On top of that, close to 40 percent of the population is still forced to defecate in the open, spreading even more disease.

The first step in eliminating child hunger is by focusing on maternal nutrition. The reason so many children are born stunted or wasted is because we pay even less attention to under nourishment among women. Childhood nutrition is further worsened by the lack of prevalence of breastfeeding, with only 18 percent of newborns breastfed, according to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey. The state needs to realise that it has fallen behind almost all its neighbours when it comes to nutrition. Existing welfare programmes like the Benazir Income Support Programme and the Baitul Maal have done a little bit to help but clearly a more targeted and focused effort is needed. Nearly 10 million children have experienced chronic nutrition deprivation in the country. That is an unacceptable number. Efforts to combat malnutrition need to start with empowering women so that they are able to make their own choices about when they are ready to give birth and best care for their children. Clean drinking water needs to be considered a basic human right and not a luxury. Ensuring every Pakistan has enough food to eat is the responsibility of the state. What the state needs to realise is that these are the very real, very concrete challenges facing our people. And they will not be solved by mere lip-service.


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