Doosuur Iwambe -AbujaGlobal Economists have predicted that the 21st century will be led by countries that have begun investing in children that are in their early years. Nigeria can be amongst this league of nations if it begins to make strategic long-term investments in children in their early years (0-5 years), which spans the period of pregnancy till when the child transitions to Primary 1. It goes without saying that the whole span of childhood is important, however science has shown that these early years are a crucial period because 90 percent of the total brain development occurs before the age of five. Therefore, developmental delays and deficiencies experienced in this period are difficult, if not impossible to compensate for later in life. In simple terms, between the ages of 0-5 years, a child needs equal exposure to all these components to lay the foundation for future productivity in adulthood. In this regard, the status quo indicates that Nigeria is significantly behind its peers. About 43 percent of children in Nigeria under five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition (Stunting). This translates to approximately 13 million children that will die or not develop to their full potential. Despite the wealth of evidence on the critical importance of early learning for long-term cognitive development, only 35.6 percent of children age 3-5-year-olds are attending an organised early childhood education programme. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the first 1,000 days of life – the time spanning roughly between conception and one’s second birthday is a unique period of opportunity when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established. UNICEF however lamented that yet too frequently in developing countries, poverty and its attendant condition, malnutrition, weaken this foundation, leading to earlier mortality and significant morbidities such as poor health, and more insidiously, substantial loss of neurodevelopmental potential. As a species, we have come from a history of “malnutrition” being synonymous with “undernutrition” – the serious lack of obtaining even adequate amounts of nutrition. In the modern era, while undernutrition remains the major challenge worldwide, we humans are now faced with the negative effects of “overnutrition” in the form of obesity and risky nutrition in the form of unbalanced diets or diets contaminated with potential toxins. Each of these conditions can be considered “malnutrition” in the true sense of the word’s roots (bad nutrition) and each has been shown to potentially reduce brain development. The figure released by UNICEF had revealed that over 900,000 children in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno have been affected by severe and acutely malnourishment. Speaking during a media dialogue on child malnutrition with a theme: “Investing in Child Malnutrition for Future”, organized by UNICEF and Child Rights Bureau of the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, a nutrition expert, Dr. Bamidele Omotola, said that investing in children’s nutrition will offers Nigeria and Africa some of the greatest opportunities for social and economic change.
Dr. Omotola, noted that for every single dollar invested in reducing stunting among children in Africa, there’s a return on investment of $16 which is capable of bringing Africa and Nigeria in particular out of poverty.
The UNICEF nutrition consultant, added that, about 33 per cent of Nigerians will get out of extreme poverty if the country successfully tackles malnutrition.
“If Nigeria overcomes the menace of malnutrition, 33 per cent of poor people will get out of extreme poverty and give their own children a better chance of life “, Dr. Omotola added.
While emphasizing that malnourished children have zero potential to contribute to any country’s economy, Dr. Omotola added that the fight against malnutrition has become imperative for Nigeria because for any economy where 50 per cent of the children are stunted or wasted is doomed.
The nutrition expert, warned that children with severe form of acute malnutrition has nine fold risk of death compared to well nourished children. He said one in five children with severe acute malnutrition cases would die if treatment is not provided at right time.
He therefore called for investment to ensure food security to end extreme hunger by 2030, the second goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Also, a child rights expert at the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture (FMIC), Mr. Olumide Osanyinpeju, called for a concerted effort in fight against malnutrition in Nigeria, especially in the North Eastern part of Nigeria.
He noted that there is need for investing in child malnutrition for the future, raising awareness and understanding on the problem of malnutrition in Nigeria and resource allocation for food and nutrition security at all levels.
According to him, “it is imperative to combat Malnutrition, because it can cause death in young children, particularly those under five years of age. There should be concerted effort to fight malnutrition out in totality to ensure the attainment of desired results. Beyond the ethical issues of human rights, investing in young children is one of the smartest investments that a country can make. In several countries, the rate of return on investments on early childhood interventions have been shown to have benefit-cost ratio as high as $17 for every $1 spent. The short-term benefits such as enhanced school readiness, retention and improved physical & mental health ensure that in the long-term, the country has a highly-skilled productive workforce. Therefore, it is an essential element towards breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. In this regard, leading economic experts are increasingly advocating for increased global investment in cerebral infrastructures in comparison to physical infrastructure such as roads and buildings. There is also emphasis on the mandatory one-year maternal leave to encourage exclusive breastfeeding which has been shown to have a significantly beneficial effect on the child’s mental intelligence.