Harriett Baldwin is the Member of Parliament for West Worcestershire and a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
We hear a lot about austerity Britain at the moment and this week we heard about drought in South East England. And yet we take it for granted that if we turn on a tap, fresh drinking water will pour out. We take it for granted that we can access flushing toilets that will hygienically dispose of our waste. In every corner of Britain, those on even the lowest incomes can buy cheap, nutritious staple foods like bread, milk, eggs, iodized salt, fortified cereals, beans and fruit.
During last week’s parliamentary recess, I travelled with Save the Children to Ethiopia, a poor country which is enjoying double-digit rates of economic growth but where nearly half of children aged under 5 have stunted physical growth because of malnutrition.
We are all familiar with Ethiopia from the famines in the mid 80s that inspired Live Aid. But when the world’s attention moves on, it is important that we recognise the ongoing work that is done by NGOs and government programmes to prevent emergencies from re-occurring.
I visited an emergency nutrition stabilisation centre in the Afar region of Ethiopia which was providing a high energy infant food called Plumpynut to severely malnourished children. Water is virtually non-existent in this region, and the two rainy periods each year are essential to replenish the meagre wells. By working in 15 remote districts of this desperately poor part of the country, the Save the Children team, working with local government, are reaching the most acutely malnourished children and pregnant mothers. In the centre I visited, deaths had been entirely prevented. In a country where over 12 per cent of children die before their fifth birthday, this is a significant achievement. A local government representative told me, “Without this project, many, many children would be dead.” Seeing with my own eyes the tightrope between life and death that these families must walk every day and the essential, life-saving help delivered by Save the Children, I am proud that the UK is a major donor of the United Nations Humanitarian Response Fund that enables this programme to exist.
I travelled to North Wallo – the area most affected by the famines of the 70s and 80s – to see how Save the Children is building irrigation projects with villagers. This mountainous area has many rivers feeding the Blue Nile and flash floods during the rainy seasons wash through quickly. By re-foresting the mountains, terracing the hillside and putting in irrigation channels this area can hope to increase food production to last the whole year and the children are now regularly going to school.
In a third project, in the incredibly remote village of Wogdi in South Wollo, girls had been missing school because of a lack of proper latrines. Separate boys’ and girls’ latrines have now been built, complete with hand-washing basins, and children are learning about the importance of hygiene. Twenty per cent of child deaths in Ethiopia are from diarrhoeal diseases, so Save the Children is working to raise awareness of the importance of sanitation. In Wogdi, four hours from a tarmac road, a maternity delivery clinic has also been built which will ensure 20,000 women are able to give birth in a safe and sanitary centre, substantially reducing maternal and newborn mortality in the area. Demand for the new provision of contraceptive services is higher than anticipated and now supply problems need addressing.
Because disease and malnutrition, particularly in the early years, have a life-long detrimental impact on IQ, education, productivity and income level, it is clear that tackling these scourges will have a positive impact over time on growth and development. In 2008, eight of the world’s leading economists including five Nobel Laureates agreed that combating malnutrition was the best development investment. The economic returns are clear – adults who were malnourished as children earn at least 20 per cent less than those who weren’t, and it’s estimated that 2-3 per cent of the national income of a country can be lost through malnutrition. Conversely, faster economic growth on its own in an emerging economy won’t automatically improve health and nutrition for the very poorest. The physical distances involved and the geographic and climatic challenges will mean that sustained efforts to raise nutritional and sanitation standards in the poorest countries will be needed for the foreseeable future. Investing in nutrition is investing in the future of a country – it creates stronger communities with healthier, better educated and more productive populations.
The day when all Ethiopian children can turn on the tap and get drinking water, flush a toilet and take a nutritious diet for granted is still a long way off, but steady and measurable progress is being made on an ongoing basis. For us in Britain and elsewhere in the developed world, investing in this kind of development work makes sense for both selfless and selfish economic reasons.
For more information about Save the Children, visit http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/