IN its recent release of hunger statistics for the second quarter of 2014, Social Weather Stations found that an estimated 3.6 million families, or 16.3 percent, experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months, while 3 million families (13.5 percent of the total) experienced moderate hunger and 609,000 families (2.8 percent) experienced severe hunger.
The impact of this perennial problem can also be seen in the recent statistics on malnutrition in the National Nutrition Survey of 2013. The prevalence rate of underweight children is 19.9 percent, down slightly from 20.7 percent five years ago. Filipino children between zero and five years old who are “wasted”—too thin for their height—increased from 6.9 percent in 2008 to 7.9 percent in 2013, while those who are “stunted”—too short for their age—remained high at 30.3 percent. At this rate Achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reducing the number of underweight children to 13.5 percent by next year is next to impossible.
It has been an established fact that the period starting from pregnancy until a child reaches two years old is critical for the development of that child’s brain. If a pregnant woman and her baby fail to have access to sufficient nourishment, brain development can be severely affected. Last year Save the Children-United Kingdom asserted that one-quarter of the world’s children may underperform at school because of chronic malnutrition. It said a stunted eight-year-old has a 20-percent probability to have difficulty in reading and math, as compared to a child of the same age who has adequate nutrition. Thus, human capital is greatly diminished by hunger and malnutrition and, ultimately, labor productivity suffers.
Malnutrition slackens economic growth in the long run. Worse, it perpetuates chronic poverty because of direct productivity losses from a weak physical status and indirect losses from poor mental capacity, schooling deficiencies, and increased health-care costs. According to the World Bank, malnutrition’s economic costs are considerable and are estimated at more than 10 percent of the lifetime earnings of individual workers, and gross domestic product reductions can go as high as 2 percent to 3 percent.
Thus, eradicating hunger and providing proper nutrition are not only economic responses; they can also be considered, from the perspective of welfare, social protection and human rights. In this age of high mass consumption and wastage of food among rich countries and elites, it is unthinkable for millions of people to go hungry and have nothing to eat. Thus, the issue is also that of equity—a reallocation of nutritional resources at the global and country levels is needed to end hunger and malnutrition.
Food insecurity among a relatively large portion of the citizenry would certainly require the government to provide leadership in solving this problem. An antihunger strategy must be formulated to respond to this very urgent concern. Certainly, the Aquino administration’s conditional cash-transfer program is one measure that helped reduce hunger and malnutrition in the country. However, this seems inadequate, based on what current statistics have shown. More needs to be done.
First, the government needs to organize the key stakeholders who must be involved in the antihunger and malnutrition program. Key institutions that need to get involved include local government units, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and, of course, the religious sector.
Second, the government, in partnership with the corporate, civil-society and religious sectors, should determine where hunger incidence is high among the population.
Third, the government, again, together with other stakeholders, must draft a comprehensive strategy to battle hunger and malnutrition. The roles of each must also be specified in this strategy.
Fourth, resources from the different sectors must be mobilized to augment the government’s limited budget to address these two problems.
And fifth, the implementation of this program must be nationwide, so that all children who are suffering from this malaise must be targeted and taken cared of.
In conclusion, adequate nutrition is a key factor in a child’s capacity for comprehension and learning skills, which, in turn, determine his or her productivity in the long term. Low labor productivity results in lower incomes and higher poverty incidence. Hunger today is, indeed, a pressing problem for the country if we want to sustain economic growth in the coming decades.
Fernando T. Aldaba, PhD, is a professor of economics at the Ateneo de Manila University and a Senior Fellow of Eagle Watch, the university’s macroeconomic and forecasting unit.