Look at Meena from a distance and you will see a normal, healthy Lao girl, of average height for a seven-year-old. Look a little bit closer and you will notice that her arms and legs, poking out through her oversized second-hand clothes, are painfully thin. Her hair lacks a healthy shine and her eyes are tired and weary. Meena struggles to concentrate a lot of the time, especially at school. Up close, the affects of malnutrition are all too apparent, especially when you realise that Meena is not seven, but twelve–years-old, and far too short for her age.
The meaning of malnutrition
Malnutrition means different things to different to people. For 40 per cent of children in Laos, it means a constant gnawing hunger in the pit of their stomachs. It means going to school each day without breakfast, unsure whether there will be enough food for lunch. It means depending on rice and what little food you can scavenge for, including insects like crickets and grasshoppers. It means suffering from stunted growth, ill health, increased susceptibility to disease, poor concentration and never meeting your full potential.
For a small but significant percentage of children, malnutrition means not living to see your fifth birthday (Laos has the 23rd highest infant mortality rate in the world - 77 children in every 1,000 die before their fifth birthday). Underweight births, non-existent breast feeding because of maternal malnourishment, and deficiencies in vitamins, iron and iodine, can all cause infant deaths.
Iodine deficiency in children can also cause mental impairment, with evidence suggesting that it can shave 10 to 15 points off IQ scores, and is the single biggest cause of avoidable mental impairment in the world.
The best form of aid
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported in 2009 that, despite a decade of economic growth, chronic malnutrition in children remains a huge problem in Laos, and will continue to cause social and economic problems long into the future.
Aside from the immediate, and sometimes devastating, consequences, malnourished children rarely meet their full mental and physical potential as adults, resulting in a loss in productivity that has serious repercussions for economic development. According to FAO research, loss of productivity caused by malnutrition will cost the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic an estimated US$166 million between 2005 and 2010. The problem is self perpetuating - malnourished children and adults are less able to perform the tasks needed to tackle the root causes, such as gain an education, acquire sustainable food sources or generate an income.
Improving nutrition in developing countries is widely believed to be one of the most effective forms of aid and poverty reduction.
The reasons for Laos’ problem with food are multiple and complex; many are linked to ongoing poverty - 75 per cent of the population survive on less than $2 a day- increasing environmental degradation, and poor education.
Laos is a landlocked, mountainous and thickly forested country. Its population of just less than six million people is tiny compared to neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, and yet growing enough food to feed everyone is hugely difficult. Only 4 per cent of the land in Laos is arable; the rest of the country is too mountainous to grow crops successfully.
What little land is available to farm on is subject to flooding and droughts, pests, and poor irrigation. Disease and land shortages mean that livestock rearing is expensive and difficult. Many farmers lack the technical skills or financial capital needed to improve agricultural techniques and produce sufficient crop yields for their family’s nutritional needs or to sell at local markets.
In very poor households, families depend on foraging for wild food resources, such as fish and aquatic animals, insects, animals, fruits and vegetables. But foraging is an unsustainable way to increase nutrient intake: over harvest, hydro power, foreign investment, logging and tourism are having a detrimental effect on natural resources and increasing the risk of food insecurity for Laos’ most vulnerable people. Foraging in national protected areas also destroys the unique biodiversity in Laos.
A battle fought on many fronts
The Social and Economic Developers Association (SEDA) in Laos is an organisation dedicated to improving the socio-economic situation there, and malnutrition represents the front line. But solving a problem as complex and multifaceted as this is not an easy matter. SEDA recognises that malnutrition is intimately linked to poverty, environmental degradation and poor education; to have any hope of solving malnutrition in the long-term, these inter-related issues must also be addressed.