Why to Watch the UNICEF Commercials, Even if it Makes You Cry

A child’s upper arm is measured at an Anganwadi centre in the village of Baggad, in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district. This is a quick and simple way to check if a child is severely underweight as they have a 10-30% chance of death without treatment. Eliminating undernutrition would boost wages by up to 50% and make children 33% more likely to escape poverty as adults. In addition, children who are not stunted are 28% more likely to undertake skilled jobs. UK aid is working with the Madhya Pradesh state government to ensure that more children are reached with nutrition services, such as regular screening. Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development (14 May 2013)

“What would you do if there was a child right in front of you, sitting all alone, crying in pain from hunger, near death from sickness?” I quickly change the channel, cringing as I see large doe eyes stretched across tiny faces, unwilling to have Alyssa Milano make me feel guilty for the bowl of chocolate cherry ice cream I just got from my stocked refrigerator.

We’ve all done it —heard the first notes of a UNICEF commercial and looked away, unwilling to let the realities of world hunger affect our moments of relaxation. While not everyone (especially poor college students) are able to donate money to help, the fact that one in nine people in the world is undernourished and that one in three children in the developing world have stunted growth demand  that we pay attention, even if it hurts. The economic cost is high as well. The Cost of Hunger in Africa study (COHA) estimates that the economic cost of undernutrition to be between $77 million to $3.7 billion every year (2-16 percent of GDP). The study goes on to estimate that, in Africa, eliminating hunger can generate economic savings ranging between $60 million and $2 billion. With undernutrition still contributing to nearly half of all deaths in children under 5, the United Nations has made make fighting hunger one of its top priorities.

In 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that advances in the Asia-Pacific region proved that we could defeat global hunger. There are currently 216 million fewer people affected by hunger than in 1990-92, despite 1.9 billion more people on our planet–that’s a 42% decrease, as the hunger rate went from 19.1% to 11.0%. But the 2016 FAO annual report also stressed that “unless climate change is addressed, agricultural productivity will decline, with serious implications for food security”and that  “governments, citizens, civil society organizations and the private sector must collaborate to invest, innovate and create lasting solutions.”

Goal two of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to end hunger, to achieve food security and improved nutrition, and to promote sustainable agriculture. Goal two not only focuses on ending hunger, but ending malnutrition, doubling the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, increasing investment in rural infrastructure and strengthening the capacity for adaptation to climate change, among many others.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is also involved in this work and has outlined five steps to Zero Hunger, an initiative to eradicate malnutrition and undernutrition.

  1. Expand social protection schemes for the most vulnerable and to provide opportunity for equitable growth.
  2. Ensure access to affordable, nutritious food for everyone on the planet. This includes making supply chains more effective, fighting food deserts and improving rural infrastructure.
  3. Reduce food waste, which costs the world $750 billion annually. While food is often wasted in the United States on the plate, in developing nations food is more often lost in production due to ineffective storage or farmers’ inability to get their goods to market.
  4. Encourage a sustainable variety of crops. Rice, wheat, corn and soy represent 60 percent of the calories consumed globally; to fight malnutrition farmers must be educated on the economic and practical benefits of growing diverse crops.
  5. Make nutrition a priority, particularly in a child’s first 1,000 days of life.

Currently UNICEF and the WFP are making gains in identifying and treating children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). SAM is what affects the children in the UNICEF commercials; its symptoms include very low weight, severe muscle wasting and swollen feet, face, and limbs. It’s estimated that about 16 million children under five are affected by severe acute malnutrition. One of the statistics that blew me away the most was that children with SAM are nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children.

Malnourished children need urgent care, which is where the recently developed ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) come in. RUTF is a high-energy, micronutrient enhanced paste used to treat children under age five who are affected by severe acute malnutrition. It does not need to be cooked or prepared, allowing for children suffering from SAM to be treated in their own homes and communities, an approach referred to as community-based management. These community-based approaches offer early detection and treatment, which leads to improved survival rates and is more cost effective than inpatient treatment. UNICEF is the world’s largest procurer of RUTF and is continuously identifying new ways to improve supply chains and deliver supplies to affected urban and rural areas.

Another priority for UNICEF is providing food in emergency situations, where children are most affected. From the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to the war in Syria, UNICEF’s foremost priority is to prevent death from starvation and disease and to reduce malnutrition. To do this, UNICEF supports mothers trying to adequately feed their babies, provides RUTF for children and works closely with water, sanitation and health care programmes to safeguard children’s nutritional status. UNICEF also provides a coordinated response as the head of the Global Nutrition Cluster, a task force that coordinates a rapid emergency response when the scale of emergency is so large that no single agency or national authority can address the emergency.

Ensuring access to nutritious foods is needed to break the cycle of malnutrition. While it may seem like the simple solution to world hunger is to provide food, almost every single global issue somehow contributes to the cycle of malnutrition; be it war, climate change, unequal power structures or lack of education. The FAO has stated that, due to population growth and climate degradation, the world will need to produce 50 percent more food, feed and biofuel by 2050 to meet demand.The largest challenges to ending hunger currently are adapting to climate change, population growth and the pressure on natural resources. Ending world hunger is more than just a cheesy answer at a beauty pageant; it’s something that can be achieved within our lifetimes. So next time a UNICEF commercial comes on while you’re watching TV, stop and think a moment about what you can do to help, because 795 million people in the world can’t change the channel on hunger.

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