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In our opinion: Extinguishing worldwide malnutrition is relatively inexpensive, worthwhile

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, May 1, 2012 photo, 2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo eats dry couscous given to him by a neighbor, after he collapsed in tears of hunger in the village of Goudoude Diobe, in the Matam region of northeastern Senegal.

Rebecca Blackwell, AP

People starve to death for many reasons. In some cases, political corruption or government ineptitude leads to a lack of resources or a dysfunctional distribution system. In other cases, a lack of education leads to crop failures or a food system that relies on one sort of food (rice, for instance) at the exclusion of other essential nutrients.

Whatever the cause, governments and people in the prosperous developed world could make a serious dent in worldwide malnutrition with a minimum of effort.

On June 8, the United Kingdom will host a hunger summit, to which leaders of the world's most influential nations have been invited. The summit is in advance of the annual G8 meetings. Nutrition is expected to be a topic on the agenda. We hope the nations involved are able to work out a deal that helps the world's most innocent victims.

At least 2.5 million children die each year because of malnutrition. Those who survive this condition generally are stunted in their growth and their cognitive abilities. They are more susceptible to diseases and more likely to die from treatable maladies such as diarrhea and pneumonia.

The devastation of malnutrition is more than just a personal tragedy. Results, a worldwide anti-poverty advocacy group, quotes figures from the World Bank indicating nations with this problem lose up to 3 percent of GDP because of it, and malnutrition can cost a person 10 percent of his or her lifetime earnings.

The problem drags down economies and makes it harder for struggling nations to overcome political difficulties and prosper through reforms.

The solution, according to World Bank figures in 2010, would cost $10.3 billion, if the money were spent wisely on programs that support breast feeding, improve agriculture, fortify basic foods and provide clean water and other sanitation. Since that figure was made known, the world has managed to contribute only 1.4 percent of the needed funds.

Yes, economic conditions are tough, even in the world's richest countries. The United States is struggling with budget sequestration and political fights over cuts and spending priorities. But less than 1 percent of U.S. overseas aid is dedicated to helping nutrition, and advocates are calling on the Obama administration to pledge only $1.35 billion over the next three years.

The money would do nothing to help people in places like North Korea, where malnutrition is suspected but impossible to reach with any effectiveness. But elsewhere, success is possible.

In Nepal, nutrition campaigns have reduced stunted growth among children by 1 percent over the last seven years. In Niger, de-worming medicine and basic education campaigns have reduced anemia in pregnant women by 40 percent.

Investments in education and nutrition can save lives, arrest political difficulties and help nations learn how to fend for themselves. That's a big return on a relatively small outlay.

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