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Guatemala: the need to invest in nutrition


Published in

Planeta Futuro - El País

David Soler Crespo

researcher NCID junior of the University of Navarra's Institute for Culture and Society

Rodrigo Asturias

researcher from research center for development Regional of the Universidad del Istmo in Guatemala.

On April 30, the doctor had to discharge the eight children from the Nutritional Recovery Center in San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala. But not because of effective treatment, but because of the government's neglect of malnutrition in the country. The children were in no condition to return to their homes, but the center had to close due to lack of funds, only four months after it reopened following the closure due to covid-19.

The closure came at the worst time, right at the beginning of the seasonal hunger season in April. In the week of April 10-17 alone, more than 1,000 cases of acute malnutrition in children under five years of age were reported. Guatemala is the country with the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America: 46.5% of children under five suffer from it, more than one million children. The figure is even more shocking in rural and indigenous areas such as the northwestern region, where almost two out of every three children suffer from a lack of nutrients.

The case of the San Juan Sacatepéquez center is not unique. Since the pandemic began, the Guatemalan government has reduced funding for 9 of the 15 programs dedicated to addressing the serious problem of malnutrition. In November 2020, in the midst of protests, assailants burned the congress in the face of government inaction on social issues.

Among the measures criticized and which forced the country's president, Alejandro Giammattei, to backtrack was the elimination of the 21 million euro allocation for the Great Crusade for Nutrition. Despite the clear nutritional problem, the Guatemalan Executive has gradually reduced its public expense in food security, an allocation that has not exceeded 2% of GDP in the last decade. The lack of investment not only compromises the health of Guatemalans, but also the country's economic development by affecting its most precious asset: human capital.

The first two years of a person's life are vital in order to have an adequate physical and cognitive development . Height is the most obvious measure: if a child is less than 80 centimeters tall at two years of age, he or she is malnourished. This affects vulnerability to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Beyond the body, the brain experiences its greatest growth in the first months of life. Lack of proper nutrition affects the ability to concentrate, report and learn at a young age. Malnourished children are 20% less likely to be able to read and write.

Stunting at Education in turn affects future working life. Those who did not suffer from stunting during childhood are 28% more likely to work in a skilled, higher paying occupation and earn up to 66% more than those who did suffer from malnutrition. In Guatemala, the lack of nutrition has generated a vicious cycle of poverty that transcends three generations and prevents the proper development .

Fighting malnutrition requires a far-sighted approach on the part of public institutions to understand not only the need to tackle the problem from a health point of view, but also from an economic point of view. The investment would be profitable for the country in the long run deadline: every dollar invested in reducing stunting generates an equivalent return of about $18 in highly affected countries, according to World Bank estimates.

The economic and environmental status must also be addressed when directing policies. Forty percent depend on subsistence agriculture in a region that suffers cyclical phenomena such as El Niño, related to climate change, which reduce efforts and increase the food crisis. Natural disasters such as hurricanes Eta and Iota, which severely affected Guatemala in 2020, are compounded by land degradation due to overexploitation, deforestation and the use of old practices such as burning, which are of leave productivity and erode the soil.

Solving malnutrition in Guatemala requires two main ingredients: real political will and measures based on scientific evidence. There are international examples that show that malnutrition can be successfully combated with this recipe. In Peru, the efforts of three different governments and the scientific approach enabled the country between 2008 and 2016 to reduce its chronic malnutrition by more than half, from 28% to 13%. Guatemala can also achieve this, but first it must have leadership with a vocation for public service.