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LATIN AMERICA: South-South Cooperation to Fight Child Malnutrition

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, May 7 2008 (IPS) - Cooperation between Latin American countries, which is cheap, efficient and horizontal, could fast-track the fight against child malnutrition, Nils Kastberg, the regional director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said at a conference held in the Chilean capital.

Kastberg called on Latin American and Caribbean countries to commemorate the 200th anniversary of their independence from Spain in 2010 with a specific goal in mind: ensuring that no child is undernourished. In his view, the challenge could be achieved, with political will and a pan-American spirit, by harnessing South-South cooperation.

“Instead of talking about heroes, tombs and great national leaders,” the region could take up the challenge of ensuring that as of Jan. 1, 2010, no pregnant woman will suffer from anaemia, which can affect the birthweight of her baby, and no child will be left without the support he or she needs to eradicate malnutrition once and for all, he said. Bicentennial celebrations of independence from the Spanish empire began in 2004 in Haiti, but most countries will be marking two centuries of independence between 2008 and 2010. That is why the UNICEF representative is proposing 2010 as the target.

Kastberg was one of the speakers on Tuesday, the second and final day of a regional ministerial conference, “Towards the Eradication of Child Malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean,” held in Santiago.

Organised by the Chilean government and the World Food Programme (WFP), this was the first ministerial level meeting on child malnutrition ever held in the region. Two subregional technical meetings had taken place previously.

Malnutrition, causing low weight for age, and particularly chronic malnutrition, which produces stunting (low height for age), have irreversible physical and cognitive consequences in children under three. Seven percent of children under five in Latin America and the Caribbean suffer from malnutrition, and 16 percent – over nine million children – from chronic malnutrition. Guatemala has the highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition in the region.

In addition to depriving children of their full development potential, undernutrition generates higher health and education costs and reduces countries’ productivity, because of lower educational attainments by malnourished children, and fewer people of working age due to higher mortality.

Halving the proportion of extremely poor and hungry people by 2015, with 1990 figures as the baseline, is the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) agreed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000.

One of the indicators to measure achievement of this goal is the prevalence of underweight children under five years of age.

But as chronic malnutrition is the real problem, because it has irreversible effects on the intellectual capacity of children as they grow, “politically it has been agreed that this must be the main indicator to measure hunger in the region,” Kastberg said.

This “interpretation” by Latin America and the Caribbean may be “exported” to other regions of the world, he said.

He said indigenous communities and migrants are two of the most vulnerable populations that could benefit from South-South cooperation on child malnutrition.

There have already been experiences of cross-border cooperation, where immigrants are covered by the health system, even when their status is irregular, and of training courses for customs personnel, he said.

Countries could learn from each other’s experiences of, for example, conditional cash transfer programmes such as Mexico’s Plan Oportunidad (Opportunity Plan) and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) programme. These initiatives, which have increased in number in recent years, aim directly at poverty, which is the underlying cause of child undernutrition, he said.

“South-South cooperation is a goldmine the region has not yet learned to exploit. A continent-wide strategy needs to be developed,” said Cristina Lazo, executive director of the Chilean Agency for International Cooperation (AGCI).

“There will always be experiences and best practices to share, independently of each country’s level of development,” she said. Chile has offered to coordinate a concrete working agenda over the next few years.

“To work out a South-South strategy we need receiving countries to specify their needs, and donor countries to say what they can offer,” she said. Kastberg proposed developing an inventory of experiences and best practices derived from programmes undertaken to date, and presenting them at a world conference on South-South cooperation that, he announced, would be held next year within the region under the auspices of the United Nations.

Germán Valdivia, the regional coordinator of the WFP’s Knowledge Management Initiative, gave out the address of an Internet portal created by the agency, which in his view could be a useful tool for South-South cooperation aimed at ending hunger and malnutrition.

The website, Nutrinet (, posts news and descriptions of successful practices and innovative programmes. The portal covers five thematic areas: mother and child nutrition, school feeding programmes, vitamins and minerals, HIV/AIDS and food emergencies.

Among the countries describing their work on the site, one of whose goals is to facilitate discussion among experts, are Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Panama and Peru.

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