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ASIA PACIFIC: MDGs – Children Under Five Straggling

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 12 2008 (IPS) - Children under five years across Asia and the Pacific are being left behind in the race to reduce poverty even as the region boasts impressive strides in meeting major United Nations development goals.

The region’s economic gains, led by powerhouse China, will enable it to reach the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), reducing poverty by 2015, states a new report released by the Asian Development Bank and two U.N bodies, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

‘’Its greatest success has been with poverty, for which the region as a whole is ‘on track’ to meet the 2015 targets of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty,’’ states ‘A Future Within Reach 2008’, a publication released this week. It comes ahead of a summit of some 100 heads of states and governments at the United Nations in New York later this month.

The number of people living below the global poverty line of one US dollar a day stood at 641 million in 2004, down from the 1.9 billion people living in absolute poverty across the region in 1990, adds the 77-page report. This was attributed to ‘’rapid reductions in South-east Asia and China.’’

Achieving the eight MDGs with a specific deadline was a commitment made by the world’s leaders at a 2000 summit at the U.N. The others include achieving universal primary education, promote gender equality to empower women, reduce under-five child mortality and improve maternal health, including reducing the maternal mortality ratio.

Yet the Asia-Pacific’s achievements on the poverty front have not been even, as the figures of malnourished children reveal. In South-east Asia, for instance, one out of every four children under five years are malnourished. ‘’This is a middle-income region and the number of underweight children are the same as Sub-Saharan Africa,’’ said Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of the Bangkok-based ESCAP, at a press conference.

‘’This is simply unacceptable,’’ she added. ‘’It shows the uneven progress across countries.’’

The number of undernourished children in South Asia is higher, nearly every other child under five. ‘’Almost 50 percent of children are underweight in Southern Asia. This region alone accounts for more than half the world’s undernourished children,’’ added a U.N. background note. Currently, there are close to 140 million children under five years across the globe who lack proper nutrients.

The Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for close to two-thirds of the world’s underweight children, ‘’is considerably behind its target for 2015,’’ states the publication of the U.N. bodies and the Manila-based international financial institution. ‘’Twenty-eight percent (of the region’s) under-five children are underweight.’’

Poor feeding practices is a major reason behind such a disturbing trend, noticeable in urban slum communities and among the rural poor, states the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). ‘’Countries in the region have some of the lowest exclusive breastfeeding and early introduction of breast milk in the world.’’

‘’Half of Asia-Pacific infants were not exclusively breastfed during first six months of life and almost one quarter lacked full coverage (two doses) of vitamin A supplementation,’’ it adds.

‘’Part of the problem is awareness. Mothers are not aware of the importance of breastfeeding,’’ Shantha Bloemen, spokeswoman for UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific regional office, told IPS. ‘’They mix sugar and water to give the children to drink. And if they use unsafe water, that can lead to diarrhoea.’’

In addition, women have been influenced by companies marketing breast milk substitutes, like the powdered formula milk, adds Bloeman. ‘’The advertising of formula is having a huge impact in South-east Asia, because it is a growing market for the companies.’’

The economic pull, attracting rural women to work in urban centres, has also impeded growth in children. So, too, the need for women to work in jobs that takes them away from breastfeeding, as is the case in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Children born to mothers who are anaemic and underweight end up being trapped in a ‘’vicious cycle,’’ says Bloemen. ‘’Women who are breastfeeding need to get the right sort of diet, but that is not happening. They also need the required micronutrients, such as folic acid.’’

Consequently, malnourished children are coming in the way of the region achieving its fourth MDG – reducing child mortality. ‘’Globally, child mortality has fallen to a record low, but the situation in Asia and the Pacific is still of great concern,’’ states the new report. ‘’Some four million children in the region die before they reach the age of five.’’

‘’Out of 47 countries for which data are available, 15 are ‘off-track,’ and several have regressed,’’ the report reveals. ‘’The pattern is similar for infant mortality.’’

According to the U.N., ‘’Malnutrition is estimated to be an underlying cause in more than one third of all deaths in children under five. The decrease in child malnutrition has been slow.’’

Globally, the number of children under five who are malnourished was 26 percent in 2006, down from 33 percent in 1990, according to the world body. ‘’By 2006, the number of children in developing countries who were underweight still exceeded 140 million.’’

If at all, the only achievement where children have gained most in the MDG campaign is in primary education, the second goal. ‘’Primary education is one of the region’s great successes: almost all countries have net primary enrolment rations above 90 percent and for many the ration is approaching 100 percent,’’ states the report.

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