I am glad that, amid all the wonderful celebration of sporting achievement, world leaders have been able to use the London games as an opportunity to think about helping children who are without the most basic means of building a productive life: adequate, nutritious food.
As those who attended the prime minister’s hunger summit at Downing Street on Sunday know only too well, malnutrition is the achilles heel of development. While immense progress has been made on other fronts in the past decade – with millions more children in school and rates of child mortality falling rapidly – progress on malnutrition remains stubbornly slow.
The reasons for this are complex: although it is the underlying cause of more than 2m child deaths annually, it does not appear on death certificates, so it remains a hidden killer. Similarly, unless there is a strong national plan across government, the responsibility for tackling the problem often falls between departments – agriculture, social services, health – meaning co-ordinated, effective action is difficult, and all too often non-existent. It also mostly affects children – those least able to speak up for themselves.
With the hunger summit, the prime minister continued his record of global leadership, using the Olympic spotlight to inject fresh impetus into the issue. He brought together leaders from the developing world – including the next Olympic host, Brazil – and from the private sector and international development, to chart a new course of action.
It felt like a dynamic gathering, and we hope it will be the start of something much bigger. Among the measures announced was investment in research for new drought-resistant and vitamin-enriched crops as well as a major private-sector alliance involving GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever, to make nutritious food available to the poorest families; and support for pioneering programmes such as the one that Save the Children is planning in Kenya, using mobile telephone technology to track hunger hot spots and allocate resources accordingly.
But if the commitment to help cut the number of children affected by stunted growth by 25 million is to be reached by the Brazilian Olympics in 2016, this must be just the beginning. In 2013 the UK will assume the G8 presidency, and we can use our global leadership to dramatically reduce the numbers dying from malnutrition. We must lead efforts to fix our broken food system. With the right collective effort, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that we could make the current generation the last to experience severe malnutrition.
To do so, the plan for 2013 must be set out early. We will need to push for commitments from the highest levels of government, including from those countries that carry the highest burden of malnutrition, such as India, Pakistan and Nigeria. We need new programmes to build the resilience of poor communities and we must scale up key interventions like breastfeeding and fortification of basic foodstuffs.
Political action should be combined with greater investment from both the private sector and international donors, and we must also address some of the underlying causes – from land use, to the lack of transparency in the food system that helps keep costs high.
We are not the only ones for whom this is a top priority. Save the Children is working with dozens of other aid agencies to push these issues higher up the agenda next year. We can’t afford to wait: research shows that acute malnutrition is actually on the rise for the first time in a decade. Meaningful action on hunger, kick-started here in London in 2012, could be the real legacy of our Olympics; that prize would be worth its weight in gold.
Justin Forsyth is chief executive of Save the Children.