The true cost of childhood malnutrition
by Roger Thurow
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Follow the story of Hagirso over nearly two decades—from 2003 to today
Roger Thurow is a senior fellow on global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously, he spent 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent based in Europe and Africa. In 2003 he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for coauthoring a series on famine in Africa and was honored by the United Nations for his work. Thurow frequently speaks on agricultural development and is the author of several books, including The Last Hunger Season and The First 1,000 Days.
A LOST CHANCE AT GREATNESS
Hagirso is 5 years old, weighing just 27 pounds. His father, Tesfaye, a poor smallholder farmer, comforts him in an emergency feeding tent.
The tent is packed with dozens of children clinging to life.
Despite emergency feeding treatment by the UN World Food Programme and others, the malnourishment has been so severe that recovery is difficult.
Doctors and nurses tell Tesfaye they don’t know if Hagirso will survive.
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Five years later
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Hagirso’s mother, Fikre, wonders how much her son was impacted by her own malnourishment at the time of his birth.
“The first years were so difficult for us,” she says.
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But clearly he isn’t thriving.
Now 10 years old, Hagirso is physically stunted. Tesfaye worries that his son is also cognitively stunted. Hagirso isn’t in school.
“He isn’t able for it,” Tesfaye says. He is small and sickly.
Hagirso is now 15.
He is twice the age of many of his classmates. But he looks like he fits in.
“I’m in school,” Hagirso proudly proclaims.
First gradeJust learning the alphabet.
Today, the letter b, combined with vowels: ba, be, bi, bo, bu.
At age 15.
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The Ethiopian government, calculating that childhood malnutrition costs the economy 16 percent of GDP annually, makes reducing stunting a top national priority.
As improving nutrition becomes a key development goal, stunting goes down globally as well.
But gains have been slowing in recent years. More than 1 in every 5 children under the age of 5 in our world today is still stunted in some manner.
Stunting is not confined to childhood. Stunted children become stunted adults, with profound costs for all of us. The World Bank estimates that childhood malnutrition and stunting cost the global economy more than$3.5 trillion annually
in diminished education, lost productivity, and higher healthcare costs.
But the greatest cost can’t be measured...
Hagirso is now 21, an adult.
He is still in school. Now, fourth grade.
Six years later he has advanced three grades.
In a class of more than 60 students, about half are 18 years or older.
This day, Hagirso is learning simple math.
At age 21.
Hagirso says he’d like to be a doctor, to help people.
It’s not likely for him—the legacy of famine nearly 20 years ago.
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Imagine the lost opportunitiesStunting is a life sentence of underachievement.
What might a child have accomplished for all of us were she or he not stunted?
A poem not written.
A song not sung.
A novel not imagined.
A mystery not solved.
A horizon not explored.
An idea not formed.
An inspiration not shared.
An innovation not nurtured.
A cure not discovered.
A lost chance at greatness for one child is a lost chance at greatness for us all.
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Why do we tolerate this?
EndFragmentImproving nutrition, ending stunting. These stand among our greatest—and most achievable—challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic makes them even more urgent imperatives.
The United Nations has declared this to be the Decade of Nutrition.
Dramatic increases in nutrition investments are needed if the
world’s Sustainable Development Goals are to be met.
It is time to raise the clamor. To create a more just and equitable food system. We have enough food for everyone.
Photographers Anne and Roger Thurow
Melese Awoke, WFP Ethiopia
With the support of: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
The Eleanor Crook Foundation
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis ReportingChicago Creative Group
Hagirso and Tesfaye are also featured in Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, published by PublicAffairs (2009).