Nigeria is in a state of double emergency. Chronic malnutrition, caused by poor nutrition over a long period of time, plagues one in three children under five. And in recent years, acute malnutrition has skyrocketed-particularly in the northeast-necessitating urgent, life-saving action. This widespread malnutrition crisis threatens the health and development of both individuals and the nation. Policymakers need to establish large-scale programs that treat and prevent malnutrition by funding interventions that target our most vulnerable, save lives and boost Nigeria’s long-term economic development.
Up until now, our response to the malnutrition crisis-both the emergency in the northeast and high rates of chronic malnutrition around the country-has not matched the severity of the problem. Of the 2.5 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition each year, we only treat about 500,000 with the help of our partners, leaving a huge gap that calls for more commitment.
Chronic malnutrition rates which have remained fairly stagnant for the last 15 years also need to be addressed. Eleven million children are malnourished in Nigeria. As a result, the lives, development and future productivity of 11 million children are all compromised. Yet to date, nutrition policies and programs have been chronically underfunded. The disconnect between what is urgently needed and current funding levels is deeply concerning.
Nigeria’s economic situation makes investments in nutrition all the more crucial. Even in the midst of a recession, nutrition needs to be prioritized. The toll that malnutrition takes on the economy cannot be ignored. Poor nutrition impedes cognitive and physical development, which translates to decreased learning ability, reduced productivity in adult years and increased healthcare costs. African countries lose an average of 8 percent of their annual GDP due to malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies alone result in a USD 1.5 billion loss in Nigeria each year. On the flipside, every dollar invested in nutrition in Nigeria has an average return of nearly USD 17. These figures leave little doubt of the economic potential of nutrition. If Nigeria is to compete in the global economy-and supercharge the potential demographic dividend-, it will need to ensure its children are well nourished.
Progress is possible, and we now know what works. Targeting women and children-especially during the first 1,000 days of life-with interventions like food fortification and breastfeeding promotion, has proven to yield significant results and end the corrosive cycle of multi-generational malnutrition. Conversely inaction in those first 1,000 days likely means that any later interventions will be too little, too late, and too costly. Policymakers structured the National Food and Nutrition Policy on this knowledge-selecting and costing nutrition programs to maximize impact, all but guaranteeing a strong return on investment and improving the health of Nigerian’s population. But investments in these interventions in Nigeria remain much too low and significantly lower than neighboring countries. Scaling up such proven interventions could help Nigeria reach the World Health Assembly (WHA) target of reducing stunting by 40 percent by 2025 and add USD 29 billion to our economy. It is encouraging to note that rates of chronic malnutrition vary considerably between states in Nigeria, with some stunting rates among children at more than 50 percent and with several others with rates around 20 percent. This indicates that it is possible to address malnutrition even in the complex Nigerian environment.
Policymakers now need to marry the political will that gave rise to the National Food and Nutrition Policy with the actions needed to achieve impact. The recent high-level policy dialogue, “Nigeria’s Nutrition Crisis,” which I chaired, hosted by the Nigerian Senate Committee on Health and Federal Ministry of Health, resulted in a call for a USD 305 million (N1 billion) investment in nutrition in the 2017 budget at the very least, which closely aligns with the government’s costed plan to scale-up a set of effective nutrition programs across the country. The Senate Committee on Health will be on the lookout for this as we deliberate on the 2017 budget proposals.
We can no longer afford to let policies gather dust on a shelf; government leaders must invest in and implement strong nutrition policies. Nigeria has an ambitious vision of becoming one of the largest economies in the world and establishing itself as a significant player in the global economic and political arena. This vision will not be realized unless we follow through on our commitments to improve nutrition. With increased leadership and action, Nigeria has the potential to make unprecedented progress that will be evident for generations to come – that is the change we promised. There is no time like the present.