Swazi Study: How Hunger 'Stunts' African Economies

The high cost of child malnutrition in Swaziland was showcased at the launch of a new study in the Cost of Hunger in Africa (COHA) series in July 2014. The Cost of Hunger in Swaziland, produced by the Government of Swaziland with support from WFP, is the first COHA study in southern Africa and among the first to quantify the social and economic impacts of child undernutrition.

The more than 60 people attending the launch in the capital Mbabane, including high-level representatives from the New Partnership for African Development and the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa, learned that Swaziland loses 3.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), or some US $92 million annually, from the long-term impact of chronic childhood hunger. Some 270,000 adults, or more than 40 percent of the labor force, suffer from physical stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition in early childhood.

The study documents how high stunting rates result in lower work productivity, higher national health costs, missed work hours due to illness, and lower rates of educational attainment. In manual activities, the associated loss is estimated at SZL 126 million (US$ 14.8 million) of potential productivity not realized. In non-manual activities, where the losses are associated with lower schooling achievement, the economic losses are estimated at SZL 251 million (US$29.5 million) in a single year.

Moreover, an estimated 37 million working hours were lost in 2009 as a result of people who were absent from the workforce as a result of nutrition-related deaths. This represents SZL 340 million (US$40 million), which is equivalent to 1.4 percent of the country's GDP.

The study estimates that Swaziland could recoup its economic losses per year by as much as US $60 million if it reduced the rate of stunting from 40 percent to 10 percent of its population by 2025.

"This study provides an elegant argument for addressing undernutrition," said Lonkhululeko Magagula, the Chief Economist in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. She added that eradicating hunger was a "tangible goal" that Swaziland was committed to achieving and the report "can help generate the political will and the concerted effort" to address chronic undernutrition in the Kingdom of Swaziland.

The results underscore the importance of childhood nutrition, particularly the role of early intervention through mother-child feeding programmes and schools meals. Children are at their greatest danger of stunting while in the womb and in first two years of life. If denied critical nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals, their development can be permanently halted. Other studies also show a positive correlation between high levels of stunting and school dropout rates, ill health and even early death.

The COHA studies employ a methodology developed during a previous study on the Cost of Hunger in select countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Egypt, Ethiopia and Uganda have also completed the Cost of Hunger in Africa studies. The COHA studies are funded by the Government of France, the African Development Bank and WFP.