Eight of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, were asked to prioritize 30 solutions to 10 of the world’s major problems. This was the Copenhagen Consensus Conference. The idea was to find out that, if they had an extra $75 billion, which of the proposed solutions would they invest in. The purpose was to make the world leaders aware of the problems, the solutions and the relative viability of their implementation, with a limited budget. According to the experts, the most important problem that needs to be addressed is that of malnutrition among children, especially supplying them with micronutrients such as vitamin A and zinc. Eighty per cent of the world’s 140 million undernourished children lack these essential micronutrients.
Following this report, the Indian government should take the initiative in the battle against undernourishment, especially since India has more than one-third of the world’s malnourished children. One of the reasons the expert panel listed the supply of micronutrients as No. 1 is the returns on investment in this solution. According to them, the cost of supplying the micronutrients would be around $60 million per year, whereas the returns in terms of health and cognitive development would be more than $1 billion.
This is significant in the Indian context, especially considering that the latest Budget allocated less than 2% of total Plan expenditure to the development of women and children. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) conducted between December 2005 and August 2006, an incredible 45.9% of India’s children aged under 3 are underweight, 39% are stunted, 20% severely malnourished and 80% are anaemic. More than 6,000 Indian children below 5 die every day due to malnourishment or lack of basic micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron, iodine, zinc or folic acid. With a problem of such magnitude, the government can no longer afford to spend just about 1.9% of total Plan expenditure to address it, especially considering the great returns to such a solution.
A randomized study conducted by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) on the impact of iron supplementation and de-worming drugs to more than 4,000 children between the ages of 2 and 6 had revealing results. These supplements were provided to the children in a pre-existing network of preschools. At least 68% of the children in the sample were anaemic and 24% suffered from intestinal worm infections. It was found that, after a year of the project, there were large gains in the weight of the children, around 0.6kg, on average. Another important result of this study was that the average preschool attendance rose sharply by 6.3 percentage points among sample children, reducing absenteeism by one-fifth. Looking at the overall cost of the project, less than $2 per child per year, it is evident that such investment will yield great results.
Sharad Raghavan is a student. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org