Executive Director Ertharin Cousin Remarks at 1,000 Days to Change the Future: Making Malnutrition History, May 21, 2012, Chicago, United States

Delivered on: 21 May 2012

World Food Programme

Thank you Senator Durbin for that kind introduction.  Let me begin by saying how great it is to be back in my hometown of Chicago and see old friends such as Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

I also want to thank Lucy Sullivan and the 1,000 Days team for putting this summit together and all their incredible work advocating for investment in early nutrition. 

We are here today because of the first Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.  But we are also here because of a specific millennium.  Not of the world, but of a single life – a child's first millennium.  For it is this millennium – the first 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and a child’s 2nd birthday – when better nutrition can have a lifelong impact on a child’s future, helping end the negative cycle of intergenerational malnutrition and maternal mortality.  And we are here, as the program declares, to join together to make malnutrition history.

It is therefore fitting that this summit is being held at the Chicago History Museum, built to showcase great achievements in both the city’s and America’s history.  Here people of all ages can come to learn about advances in architecture and engineering, literature and arts, science and technology.

Indeed, this day, May 21, marks the anniversary of important historical achievements.  It was on May 21, 1927, that Charles Lindbergh – who in his early aviation career flew mail for the U.S. post office between St. Louis and Chicago – landed at Le Bourget Airport in France, becoming the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris.  Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight garnered worldwide attention and would spur further advances in aviation, including the first solo flight across the Atlantic by a woman, when Amelia Earhart landed her plane in Ireland exactly five years later on May 21, 1932.

It was on May 21, 1929, that the first automatic electric stock quotation board was put into operation in New York City, representing the major advance in market information since the Edison ticker.  The ability to show open and closing prices of each stock listed, including their movements in prices throughout the day, would help revolutionize the securities industry, including the Chicago Board of Trade.

And it was May 21, 2005, that the world of medicine celebrated the 200th anniversary of the crystallization of morphine by Freidrich Serturner in Germany – the first isolation of a natural plant alkaloid. Serturner’s discovery of morphine sparked the study of alkaloid chemistry, hastening the emergence of the modern pharmaceutical industry.  As Dr. Jonathan Moss of the University of Chicago noted on the anniversary, “Morphine remains the standard against which all new medications for postoperative pain relief are compared.”

May 21, however, is also a somber anniversary.  Today, May 21, 2012, over 9,000 children will die from hunger and malnutrition and countless more will be condemned in their mother’s womb.  This is not a unique occurrence, but continues to be a daily calamity.  For those lucky enough to survive the first 1,000 days, temporary lack of adequate nutrition can translate into long-term morbidity.  The mere absence of basic vitamins can mean permanent cognitive impairments and stunted growth. 

The great tragedy is that ending maternal and child undernutrition does not require a major scientific or engineering breakthrough such as those previously mentioned.  Preventing the loss of a generation of children to malnutrition and hunger does not require even a fraction of the knowledge that fills this museum's collection of over 22 million artifacts and documents.  It is, on one level, relatively simple: women and children need access to the right nutrition – including the right nutritional practices such as adequate breast feeding, proper hygiene, as well as life-saving micronutrients and nutritious foods.

We have the knowledge to defeat malnutrition, but it requires dedication.  It requires men and women who are undeterred by the obstacle in front of them, who, as we say at WFP, refuse to let anything stand between them and a hungry child.  It requires the sacrifice of the brave humanitarians working on the front lines, many of whom work for NGOs represented at this summit.  It requires nations to commit to putting in place the right policies for their most vulnerable citizens.  It requires the leaders in health, agriculture, academia, and finance – those of you here today – working together in partnership.  In short, it requires a generation who recognize that short-term commitments will not achieve long-term results.

Yet global progress has been extremely slow.  According to the landmark Lancet report, maternal and child undernutrition is still the underlying cause of 3.5 million preventable deaths in children under five each year and more than one-third of the burden of disease for children today.  The proportion of children who are stunted has fallen by an average of just 0.6 percentage points per year, from 40 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2010.  And according to a recent report by Save the Children, if current trends continue, 450 million children will be affected by stunting in the next 15 years. 

And so today, I believe we are at a grave, yet unnecessary juncture. Unnecessary because we know the devastating effects on children whose nursing mothers lack the necessary nutrients.  Many of you here today have helped marshal the evidence.  We know that this first millennium – from gestation to two year’s old – is critical.  If mothers and their children do not receive adequate nutrition the damage is permanent.

This idea of permanence is not a word that is embraced in policy circles or amongst practitioners.  Because permanence means there is no redoubling of efforts later on.  There is no future intervention, no ingenious policy that can remedy the failure to address the needs of the 170 million children who are chronically undernourished at this stage of their lives. 

Yet this juncture is also an opportunity; an opportunity to alter the course of future generations and ensure that every child has the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life.  This will require four concrete actions.

First we must be prepared to respond to the immediate needs of the most vulnerable in emergencies – such as what we are witnessing today in the Sahel region of West Africa, where drought has left mothers unable to answer their child’s plea for food, too weak to nurse their crying baby.

In Niger, where United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres and I travelled earlier this month, we visited projects in Ouallam and Maradi where hunger and malnutrition have reached emergency levels.  We met some of the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from fighting in neighbouring Mali, many of whom are mothers with infants.

Yet across the region, millions of hungry are being reached with life-saving action thanks to the coordinated efforts of the UN and our NGO and civil society partners.  Preventing and treating acute malnutrition of children and pregnant and nursing women is at the core of WFP’s response to the Sahel crisis.  Blanket supplementary feeding and food distributions are underway and WFP plans to provide special food assistance to 3.5 million of the children and women most in need, mobilizing 35,000 metric tons of products such as Plumpy’sup and Plumpy’doz to prevent and treat malnutrition.  This represents nearly twice the amount of specialized nutrition products WFP mobilized for the Horn of Africa response.

The quick recurrence of droughts in the Sahel means that people have had little time to recover.  Food prices are abnormally high, savings are exhausted and livestock herds have not been replenished.  This is why – and the second point I want to highlight – it is critical that the world continue to fund safety nets that protect the most vulnerable, because the alternative – food riots, starvation and a generation of children permanently stunted by malnutrition – is far more costly.

In times of crisis such as conflict, drought, or rising food prices, it is the extreme poor and vulnerable who suffer the most – women and young children often have disproportionately less food during shocks. The large majority of the world’s population have no access to formal safety nets; this includes nearly 75 percent of households in Sub-Saharan Africa and 65 percent in South Asia.  It is they who bear the costs of conflict or war on their dinner plates.  During droughts families are forced to sacrifice tomorrow for today – eating income-producing livestock.  Negative coping mechanisms such as these are compounded by food price spikes which increase malnutrition as the poor eat less and switch from more expensive, nutritious food to cheaper staples.  These changes can bring permanent damage on the most vulnerable, especially for children under the age of two, as well as for pregnant and lactating mothers.  This is why safety net programmes are so vital.

Humanitarian organizations, development agencies, and NGOs are all in the business of protecting people from hunger.  We use many programs with our government counterparts to do this, such as emergency feeding, mother and child health programs, and school feeding.  But we can no longer operate in a bilateral sense.  With the increasing focus on aid effectiveness and harmonization, the post Paris, Accra and Busan agendas, it is important that we are part of partnership dialogues in country – working together to ensure that maternal and child nutrition is nested in the bigger context of safety net programs, working with governments to reinforce and refine targeting systems to reach mothers and infants, and helping countries develop capacity to implement and monitor progress of these programs.

Third, we must get the biggest bang for the food buck.  In addition to getting the right food to the right people at the right time, while helping the most vulnerable build resiliency, we must also ensure that every one of our food interventions has the maximum nutritional impact.   At WFP, we are asking, not only how can we feed mothers and children, but how best to feed them nutritious food. 

We are engaging the private sector partners and others to create specialised nutritious food products that are specially geared to meet the needs of pregnant and lactating women and children under two.  WFP is stepping beyond kilo-calories, working with food technologists to deploy products like WawaMum and AchaMum developed in Pakistan that prevent or treat acute malnutrition.  For example, WawaMum is highly fortified chickpea paste that requires no water or cooking.  Each package cost only 17 cents yet it contains essential vitamins and minerals to protect the brains and bodies of children under two.

Finally, we need leaders and champions who will make it their goal to break the cycle of malnutrition starting with the 1,000 day window.  The leadership that all of you have shown in the area maternal and child nutrition is essential to unlock the power of partnerships between governments, the private sector, NGOs, foundations, and international organisations. 

In studying the lives of great leaders – many of whom are showcased at this museum – one is able to observe how these men and women were attentive to the fleeting moments of history, acting upon opportunities that were presented to them.  Now is such an opportunity.  No issue is more urgent, or more foundational to other development goals, than getting maternal and child nutrition right. 

Today, the challenges facing us are more than a temporary emergency; they are a collective responsibility.  Working together we can save and transform lives.

Thank you.