By Bjørn Lomborg
The world faces many problems, and feeding a growing population adequately is certainly one of them. The good news is that we are well on track to halving the proportion of people suffering chronic hunger between 1990 and 2015. The bad news is that still leaves over 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night. Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to solve this problem quickly, but there are smart ways to use resources to do a lot of good both now and in the long term.
Both children and adults need a good quality diet, but feeding young children well makes a big difference for their entire lives. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life – from conception to age two – are vital for proper development. Poorly nourished infants don’t grow as tall as their peers, and measuring the proportion of stunting (being smaller than the expected height for age) is a simple way of checking for malnourishment. In Egypt, about 31% of children under-5 years are stunted. These children don’t just fail to thrive physically; they also fall behind better-fed ones in developing cognitive skills. This lack of development has real long-term consequences. Stunted children do less well at school and lead poorer adult lives.
Actually, halving the proportion of hungry in the world was part of the promise of the United Nations (UN) in the Millennium Development Goals. Now, 193 national governments are working through the UN to decide on targets for the coming 15 years. Making smart choices is important, because that’s the way we will do most good in the world by 2030. Putting money into ineffective projects would fail the world’s poorest people.
Although there are lots of factors to take into account, the best basis for comparing competing targets on a level playing field is an economic assessment of costs and benefits. My think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has asked over 60 expert economists to contribute to this important task. Their studies analyse a wide range of targets proposed as part of this next agenda, covering 18 broad areas.
Most people would feel that feeding people properly – particularly young children – is something we simply have to tackle. And it turns out that what looks like a good idea morally is also really good economically. Good nutrition helps children develop properly and produces people who are able to make the best of all the opportunities which come their way.
The difference is dramatic, and well illustrated by a follow-up to an experiment in Guatemala. Starting in 1969, preschool children in several villages were given a nutritionally enhanced diet and compared with similar children in neighbouring communities, who got a less nutritionally useful diet. Going back to these same children 35 years later, when they were mature adults, showed some startling differences. The well-nourished children were not stunted by age three, stayed in school longer and developed better cognitive skills as adults. They were more likely to be employed and earned higher wages; their better physical and mental development made them more suitable for both skilled manual and white-collar jobs. A study in Brazil, for example, showed that just a 1% increase in height raised average adult male earnings by 2.4%.
In Guatemala, the children who were better nourished, turned out to have a much higher income as adults, compared to the control group. They had a 66% higher household consumption, an impressive improvement in quality of life from simple interventions in childhood. Spending a small amount – just $96 in total – on providing nutritional supplements, improving the balance of the diet and deworming pays back handsomely. Over a working life, between the ages of 21 and 50, we can expect that a dollar spent on early childhood nutrition will on average do about $45 worth of good over a wide range of low- and middle-income countries. That makes it a truly phenomenal use of money.
In East Africa, for Uganda the benefit of better nutrition is estimated at up to 45 Ugandan shillings back on every shilling. In the case of Kenya, this is higher still, up to 60 Kenyan shillings of benefits for every one shilling spent and this illustrates an important point.
It costs about as much to deliver good nutrition in each country, but the benefits are greater when income levels are already higher and the economy is growing strongly. The great thing about feeding infants well is that it starts a virtuous circle, with increasing benefits for succeeding generations. Good childhood nutrition produces people who can contribute more and help boost economic growth and can themselves bring up well-fed, healthy children. Healthy children grow up to be healthy, more productive adults who bring up the next generation to be even better fed, better educated and more productive.
Feeding people properly – and starting early – is not just a moral imperative; it also makes a lot of economic sense. That’s the message that the world’s governments and the UN will hear as they make their choice of targets for the post-2015 period.
Dr. Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, ranking the smartest solutions to the world’s biggest problems by cost-benefit. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. His new book is How To Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place.