Jan Egeland

© UN Photo

A third of children under the age of five who die lose their lives because they can’t get the food they need. Children left so weakened by relentless hunger that their starved bodies can’t fight off illnesses like diarrhoea or pneumonia.

But this is not a famine. It does not appear on our television screens. This is a hidden crisis where children go to bed hungry simply because their families can’t grow or afford nutritious food. And in 2012 children’s nutrition risks being jeopardized further by economic crisis, chronic poverty and fluctuating food prices.

The lack of nutritious food means that children’s bodies are chronically starved of crucial minerals and vitamins – or are ‘stunted’ – which stops their brains and bodies from developing properly. The impact is devastating. Chronic malnutrition can have a lifelong, irreparable impact on children’s health and on their ability to learn and fulfill their potential.

This is the malnutrition we see in India where despite rapid economic growth nearly half of all children are malnourished and the Prime Minister has declared child malnutrition a “national shame”.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen said recently that while famine generates media headlines and global attention, chronic malnutrition is neglected. He is right. The world sits up when faced with shocking images of the 6.5 million children suffering in emergency food crises such as East Africa. But every day another 170 million children are affected by stunting. This could seem an overwhelming number but 80% of children stunted due to malnutrition live in just 20 countries and we know change is possible.

The case is very simple. Every child has the right to a life free from hunger. All children should have a chance for a good start in life so they can grow up to be healthy and productive.

We know that tackling malnutrition saves lives and it is one of the best investments in terms of giving children a healthy start in life and reducing the impact and cost of disease. It provides the foundation for creating stronger communities with healthier and more productive citizens.

But because malnutrition is seldom listed as a cause of death - children finally die from other diseases having been severely weakened by malnutrition - it has been sidelined by the international community.

A new report published today by Save the Children identifies this hidden crisis - compounded by rising food prices, climate change and economic downturn - that could put hundreds of thousands more children’s lives at risk because their parents can no longer provide a decent diet for their children.

There are a number of simple solutions that – if invested in by both rich and poor countries – can stop children going hungry and protect them into the future, including the delivery of proven, cost-effective interventions. Countries need to invest in health services to ensure that well-trained health workers are able to deliver the interventions needed to improve nutrition, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable people. Support should be targeted for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children in their first 1,000 days who are living in poor households. Many of the best examples of progress in tackling malnutrition have come from countries that have invested in effective social protection policies that provide regular cash or food benefits for vulnerable families.

As the report argues, the true extent of the crisis has not been recognized and we must work together in 2012 to galvanize political leadership and public support. There is a big opportunity in 2012 for real progress with ‘food’ becoming a high profile global issue in discussions about the world economic crisis, it will be on the agenda of the G8 and G20 meetings this year. We must ensure that child malnutrition is central to that debate. It can’t solely be about improving food production and leaving local populations with nothing.

There are signs of hope. The actions of the Brazilian government show how strong political leadership can impact on child nutrition. When Luis Inàcio Lula da Silva took office in 2003 one of his first acts was to set up the major Zero Hunger social programme. Zero Hunger involves more than ten different ministries, each responsible for programmes relating to nutrition and food security. One of the most important strands of the strategy is Bolsa Familia, an innovative $8bn Conditional Cash Transfer scheme that now reaches over 46 million people, a large part of the country’s low-income population.

We can work together to raise the profile of malnutrition and countries should work together to ensure an ambitious action plan that aligns institutional reform with clear delivery of new resources. Countries with high malnutrition burdens should also demonstrate the commitment needed to eliminate malnutrition and there is now a very lively debate in India about ensuring the benefits of growth result in health and improved nutrition for all. This is a good thing.

We need to make malnutrition visible. It’s a hidden killer that kills slowly and doesn’t appear on death certificates. So in order to make the deaths of these children count and to make governments accountable for preventing them, there must be agreed national and global targets for a reduction in stunting in the countries with the highest burden of malnutrition. We must work together to enable children’s right to food and building families’ resilience to economic shocks. We must work together to ensure that all children have a life free from hunger.

Written by Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch and formerly United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Jasmine Whitbread, Save the Children International CEO.