Developing strategies to end hunger

Taking Action Against Malnutrition: The Zero Hunger Pact in Guatemala

It’s easy to forget that hunger and malnutrition are still big problems here in the Western Hemisphere. The focus tends to be on countries in Africa and South Asia, where malnourished women and children are more visible and international organizations more active. In previous posts on Institute Notes, I’ve written about traveling to Guatemala and described efforts now under way to reduce the country’s stubbornly high rates of maternal/child malnutrition.

Today 1,000 children will be born in Guatemala. If the past predicts the future, half of these babies will grow up stunted (far too short for their age). Child in ChiquimulaStunting causes children to be more susceptible to illness and less likely to do well in school. People who are stunted have lower lifetime earnings than their peers, and they are more likely to raise stunted children themselves. Does this make you a little angry?  When a national survey in Guatemala revealed that less than 1 percent of the respondents thought malnutrition was a problem in the country, it angered President Perez Molina more than a little. He ordered every member of his cabinet to spend time living with a family facing chronic food shortages and malnutrition. Many such families are indigenous Guatemalans in difficult to reach mountainous regions.

It didn’t stop with the cabinet. In the end, 6,212 middle- and high-income Guatemalans -- officials, families, members of church and civil society groups -- connected with some of the poorest people in their country. The result was a nationwide commitment to break the cycle of malnutrition and stunting. It’s an ambitious goal in the sense that malnutrition is an entrenched problem that has persisted for decades despite earlier attempts to solve it. In a country whose president is limited to one term (four years), it has proven difficult to muster the political will to initiate actions that might not be sustained. But the Perez Molina administration reconvened after the rural visits to launch a concerted nationwide effort to scale up nutrition in Guatemala. The Zero Hunger Pact was born.

“Zero Hunger” has two main goals:  to reduce chronic malnutrition among children by 10 percent and to prevent deaths caused by acute malnutrition by focusing on seasonal hunger (the spike in hunger that generally comes just prior to harvest time). A series of specific actions to combat malnutrition and to encourage people to participate have been developed. The pact’s other areas of focus are to include promoting development and fighting poverty, especially among indigenous rural women. Activities have now begun in various parts of the country, and plans call for expansion in 2014 and 2015.

Last week, I attended a meeting about the Zero Hunger Pact at the State Department, along with Guatemalan government leaders; the State Department’s Acting Special Representative for Global Food Security, Jonathan Shrier; and USAID’s Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau of Food Security, Paul Weisenfeld. With the strong backing of Guatemala’s president, leaders from government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society are working together on a plan to make sustainable improvements in nutrition.

Guatemala has been active in the global Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which now brings together 34 countries committed to improving maternal and child nutrition. The world now knows what to do and how to do it. What Guatemala has added is political will at its highest level, a national budget allocation, and public commitment.

The Zero Hunger Pact says it best:

“Today we dare dream about a different Guatemala, in which children with smiles are free from hunger and reach their full potential. We have launched the process of change and as a society we are ready to pay the cost for reaching our collective success. What used to divide us, brings us together now in the fight for one single cause:  to eradicate malnutrition.”

So with this blog we can salute Guatemala for its efforts, along with other SUN Movement countries who are making political decisions and changing government policies to reduce malnutrition. Scott Bleggi


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