Eating on $1.75 a day


You may have heard of this new initiative Live Below the Line launched for the first time in Canada last Monday, April 29th, by the Global Poverty Project and followed by hundreds of citizens across Canada to support four non governmental organizations: CUSO InternationalResults/Resultats CanadaRaising the Village and Spread the Net.

“Live Below the Line” is an innovative awareness and fundraising campaign that is challenging individuals and communities to see how well people can live on just $1.75 a day. The principle of this campaign is quite simple but really powerful: by living off just $1.75 per day for food and drink for five days, anyone can bring to life the direct experiences of the 1.4 billion people currently living in extreme poverty and can help to make real change.

I took the challenge for 5 days last week and raised money for Results/Resultats Canada. My mission accomplished, I went back eagerly to my real life. Moreover, I was still thinking about this valuable experience, how it has changed not only my perception of extreme poverty, but also my engagement as a nutrition security specialist, and more importantly, my implication as a citizen who wants to use her political will to enact change on global poverty issues. For me, the quintessence of “Live Below the Line” is still in motion!

To be honest, the first time I heard about “Live Below the Line” and started to picture myself doing this kind of challenge was an authentic moment of panic. How can I survive on $1.75 per day for food and drink? It was impossible for me to cope with the idea, since this budget was ridiculously low when compared to the Canadian standard of “eat well and be active.”

Living in Canada for many years now, I am used to a certain standard, and I expect to be able to attain healthy lifestyle without any major constraints. With $1.75 per day, mission impossible!

To give you an example, the city of Toronto defines each year the real cost of healthy eating, i.e., $49.87 per week for individuals my age range, which corresponds to $7.12 per day. In this context, $1.75 per day, which represents 24.6% of the cost of a nutritious food basket, is definitively below the line.

Forget as well the Canada Food Guide 3 fruits and 4-5 vegetables, 5-6 grains, 2 dairy and/or alternatives, and 2 meat and/or alternatives – during these five days, this won’t be possible at all.

When you are health & food conscious, “Live Below the Line” demands a good understanding of nutrition science, a lot of planning and a strong mental spirit. And I really tried my best. Two weeks before the challenge, I tested different recipes, localized best bargains for food, found ways to maintain my protein intake at an optimal level, and made some drastic choices between having fruits or vegetables – not both, too expensive. My menu for this 5-day challenge was quite simple: oat pancakes with banana for breakfast, congee (Chinese soup with rice and lotus seeds) for lunch, rice with split peas and grapes for dinner, two snacks (a boiled egg and an apple) to stave off hunger and the same tea bag for the whole day as well as a lot of water. No fancy French cuisine!

My first day was difficult, a few hunger pains, a mild migraine and caffeine withdrawal. But the fact that I had 5 small meals per day, a good breakfast to start, and a good intake of protein, helped me to adjust quite well with my new diet. An analysis of my food showed me that my daily calorie intake was slightly too low to maintain my body weight (-23%); these calories were mostly carbohydrate (+26%, when compared to my daily requirement) and protein (-12%). In contrast, my fat intake dropped significantly (-64%). Impossible for me to meet my daily requirement for essential omega-3 fatty acids, I didn’t plan to eat fatty fish, enriched eggs, flaxseeds, chia or raw hemp seeds or walnuts, too expensive.

The “Live below the line” diet had also a significant impact on my micronutrient intake, mostly because I was not able to diversify my food during these five days. As I was able to maintain my iron and vitamin C adequately, my calcium (43% of my daily requirement), vitamin A (40%) and vitamin D (0%) were significantly low or nonexistent. Hypothetically, continuing the same foods and nutritional pattern may ultimately affect my overall health. I might develop cardiovascular disease – the leading cause of death for women in Canada, and suffer later in live from osteoporosis. This is a non negligible risk factor for me, mainly because I really think that access to diversified and nutritious foods is a pivotal aspect of a healthy and active lifestyle.

“Live below the line” requires a lot of discipline and self-control but this is not enough to ensure good health when nutritious food access is limited. There is no place for creativity around food. It is more like a routine. You fill your stomach, you just want to fill it and move on.

What I missed the most, was the possibility to diversify my food intake, to maximize my healthy food choices without financial constraint and more importantly, to cook, give and share food with my friends and relatives. Food defines our place in the society! Food is pleasure!

When doing this specific challenge, I was able to experience the dehumanization of the feeding process. Feeding ourselves, our family and friends is a social act. Generally, food is the most important thing a mother can give to a child. Universally, mother’s milk is definitely the best food for infants. Food is not just a symbol of love, it is also security, an opportunity for each child to grow adequately and develop his (her) full potential. Food is life!

As I am thinking one more time about my experience, I recall the definition of the Right to Food as a Human Right.  Each word resonates more deeply than before the challenge, and the whole statement becomes now a reality for me because I have modestly experienced the day-to-day life of people living in poverty. I was part of the “Live Below the Line” campaign.

Nutrition and food security are key in the context of human development, economic growth and poverty reduction; and a global effort has been growing around nutrition over the past decade. As a result, the G8 has now put global undernutrition high on its agenda. Moreover, 34 developing countries, “highly-impacted” by undernutrition, have committed to scaling up their nutrition programs.

On June 8th, the UK Government will co-host an event with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF): “Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science”. It is going to be a day of international action, bringing together governments, business, science, and civil society to improve the quality and quantity of food available to the world’s poorest people.

On the eve of the G8 Summit in London (June 17-18), world leaders will have an opportunity to support the developing countries that have developed cost effective plans for scaling up their nutrition programs through the SUN Framework. It is important that we continue to bring international attention to the issue of undernutrition, invest in and scale up nutrition programs that not only reduce child mortality but also consolidate the future of children by reducing the incidence of stunting and its detrimental long-term impacts.

At the June “Nutrition for Growth” event in London, Canada will have the opportunity, because of its leadership in nutrition, to inspire other members to invest in developing country-led efforts to reduce undernutrition.  It is extremely important that we work together to commit additional finances and political capital to invest in nutrition and food security, to make sure that less and less women and children live below the line in a near future.


(Image from


Published in the Ottawa Citizen –

Invest in Nutrition

Eden, a young boy of 3 years old, was just diagnosed with speech delay. This is one more illness that is affecting him. He also suffers from immune deficiency and deafness. All are related to his first year of life when he has faced severe chronic malnutrition. He looks normal, but the consequences are detrimental; this lack of food (hunger), at a critical moment in his early life, will hamper his ability to learn and hinder opportunities later in life.

This disturbing story may be the intolerable reality of children living in India or Ethiopia; but in fact, this story happens next door to us in America. Eden is one among other protagonists of a provoking documentary launched last month – A Place at the Table.

This documentary is thought-provoking mainly because it shows us that obesity and hunger are neighbours, our neighbours. Access to affordable nutritious foods in a world of plenty seems an unacceptable challenge for too many. In fact, this is increasingly the reality for many children living in both the developing and developed world, mainly because hunger and obesity are globally interconnected. We cannot pretend that it is not visible; it is in fact in our backyard. The burden of malnutrition is one major challenge in the context of the post-MDGs if we really want to achieve sustainable human development for every child in the world.

It is true that we have made significant progress over the past 50 years in the sector of population health. Life expectancies for men and women have increased. A greater proportion of deaths are taking place among people older than 70 years. The burdens of HIV and malaria are falling. Far fewer children younger than five years are dying. But this encouraging picture is being challenged by old and new threats. Africa remains the most afflicted continent, where maternal, newborn, and child mortality, along with a broad array of vaccine-preventable and other communicable diseases, are still urgent concerns. Malnutrition and stunting continue to be a long-term damaging stigma for children in Africa and South East Asia, with an estimated 75% of the world’s 165 million stunted children living there.

The link to extreme poverty is incontestable – as children in the poorest communities are more than twice as likely to be stunted, particularly in rural areas where as many as one third of children are affected.

On the other hand, more young and middle-aged adults in low and middle-income countries are suffering from obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (diabetes, hypertension, stoke and cardiovascular disease…). These diseases are driven primarily by phenotypic predisposition and high consumption of ultra-processed foods. With increasing urbanization and shifts in diet and lifestyle, the result could be an escalating epidemic of such conditions in many low- and middle-income countries. This would create new economic and social challenges, especially among vulnerable groups.

Fighting stunting is the emerging battle in the context of optimal human development. It is the irreversible impact of not receiving enough nutrient dense foods within the first 1000 days of life, from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday. But stunting is more than a problem of stature; this lack of nutritious food also impacts the overall physical (organ as well as immune cell function) and cognitive development, and determines the susceptibility to obesity and food-related non communicable diseases later in life.

During the first 1000 days, nutritional requirements to support rapid growth and development are very high, and the baby is totally dependent on others for nutrition, care and social interactions. For example, the first year of life is a time of astonishing change during which babies in normal conditions, on average, grow 55% in length, triple their birth weights and increase head circumference by 40%. Between 1 and 2 years age, an average child grows about 12 cm in length and gains about 3.5 kg in weight. During these crucial days as well as during fetal life, the body is putting together the fundamental human machinery (similar to hardware and software for computer). This process is done over a very short period of time and requires specific nutrients like vitamin A, iron, folic acid, zinc but also protein, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and choline. The immune-system and brain-synapse development are particularly vulnerable. As a result, any disturbance of this frantic activity leaves a terrible mark. Smaller than their non-stunted peers, stunted children are more susceptible to sickness. In school, they often fall behind in class. They enter adulthood more likely to become overweight and more prone to non-communicable diseases. When they start work, they often earn less than their non-stunted co-workers. The drama of this situation is the fact that an undernourished mother is more likely to give birth to a stunted child, perpetuating a vicious cycle of high prevalence of premature death (an estimated 60-80% of neonatal deaths occur among low birth weight babies), undernutrition and poverty.

It is imperative to focus on the first 1000 days of a child’s life as the crucial window of opportunity for change. It is during this time that proper nutrition has the greatest impact on a child’s health and potential future wellbeing and opportunities. A recent publication in Lancet has reinforced this idea, and has showed that attaining optimal growth before 24 months of age is desirable; becoming stunted but then gaining weight disproportionately after 24 months is likely to increase the risk of becoming overweight and developing other health problems. UNICEF’s latest publication “Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress” is closing the loop. It shows that there are proven low cost solutions for reducing stunting and other forms of undernutrition. These simple and proven nutrition activities need to be integrated together. They include improving women’s nutrition, early and exclusive breastfeeding, providing additional vitamins and minerals as well as giving appropriate nutrient dense foods, especially in pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life.

Investing in children’s and women’s nutrition is not only the right thing to do from a human right point of view; it is also a cost-effective investment. It can increase a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by at least 2-3% annually. Every US$1 spent on nutrition activities to reduce stunting will have a return on investment of US$30. This integrated nutritional strategy as proposed by UNICEF and other international stakeholders is the locomotive that can accelerate economic growth and pull millions of people out of poverty.

Let’s work all together to be sure that every children around the world has a place at the table. This is our responsibility!

This article was publish in the Ottawa Citizen last week. This is the link:

Quinoa Year aims to ease food insecurity and transform the global diet

2013 is the International Quinoa Year:

This is an interesting article published by the UN news Centre…. and I would like to share with you some of the key points and highlight why quinoa is an interesting staple in the global context of food security. However, quinoa’s success starts to initiate problems and challenges that need to be addressed if we want to make this food revolution sustainable locally as well as globally. 

Quinoa farmed on the Bolivian antiplano ranges in colour from white to pink to orange. Photo: Claudio Guzmán/FAO

Quinoa, a highly nutritious grain-like crop that has made its entry into the food basket of culinary connoisseurs has been a staple for centuries in South America, among pre-Columbian Andean farming communities from Colombia to Ecuador. In fact, most of the world’s quinoa is grown on the altiplano, a vast, cold, windswept, and barren 14,000-foot Andean plateau spanning parts of Peru and Bolivia.

By declaring 2013 the ‘International Year of Quinoa’, the United Nations is hoping to popularize a life-sustaining seed that could help promote food security and poverty eradication, cut malnutrition and boost biodiversity in support of the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. It is also a way to recognize the indigenous peoples who preserved quinoa through traditional knowledge and practices passed down through the ages.

Quinoa famers in Bolivia show off their latest crop which could help promote food security and eradicate poverty. Photo: Claudio Guzmán/FAO

In Resolution 66/221, the General Assembly declared the International Year of Quinoa in recognition of the Andean indigenous people “who have managed to preserve quinoa in its natural state as food for present and future generations, through ancestral practices of living in harmony with nature.” Hence the theme for this year: “A future sown thousands of years ago.”

Pronounced ‘keen-wah’, quinoa is not really a grain, not really a vegetable. It is a pseudo-cereal, part of the chenopodium family related to beets and spinach. Quinoa seeds are gluten-free and have all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins needed to survive. Due to its high nutritional value, indigenous peoples and researchers call it “the golden grain of the Andes.”

One cup of quinoa (a single serving size) brings:
  • 220 calories (70 % carbs, 15 % fat, 15 % protein)
  • 40 grams of carbohydrates (13 % daily value)
  • 8 grams of protein (16 % of daily value)
  • 3.5 grams of fat (5 % daily value with no saturated fat)
  • A glycemic load (blood sugar spike) of only 18 out of 250
  • 5 grams of fiber (20 % of daily value)
  • 20 % of daily value of folate (various forms of Vitamin B)
  • 30 % of magnesium daily value; 28 % daily value of phosphorous; iron (15 %); copper (18 %); and manganese (almost 60 %)

Quinoa’s link to food security

Cautioning that the crop is “still in the experimental phase” in some areas, Mr. Bojanic, who is the Deputy Regional Representative at the FAO Regional Latin America and the Caribbean Office and also serves as the Secretary for the International Year of Quinoa’s Secretariat, said that quinoa “is beginning to be taken up by countries that would not have thought of having it a few years ago.” Those include Canada, China, Denmark, Italy, India, Kenya, Morocco and the Netherlands, which are already producing or undertaking agronomic trials towards commercial production of quinoa.

Bolivia and Peru account for more than half of the annual 70,000 tons produced of quinoa, with the United States responsible for about 7,000 tons and France close behind, FAO reports. Quinoa is hardy. It thrives in temperatures from -8 degrees Celsius to 38 degrees Celsius, at sea level or 4,000 metres above, and is not impacted by droughts or poor soils.

This crop can be grown under very difficult conditions like semi-arid, at high altitudes, sea level, with no fertilizer. It’s an amazing crop in terms of the adaptability that it has to stressful environments,” Mr. Bojanic said.

Researcher from the University de Valparaiso with quinoa farmers in Chile. Photo: Didier Bazile/CIRAD

This adaptability makes quinoa potentially viable for areas with regular droughts, such as the Sahel Region – which includes Senegal, Chad, Niger and Mauritania – where million of people are in need of emergency food aid and malnutrition is rampant.

The latest figures in FAO’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 Report show that despite significant progress, almost 870 million people – or one in eight – are still suffering from chronic malnutrition.

UN officials say there is still time to reach the Millennium Development Goal for reducing the proportion of hungry people around the world by half by 2015, but countries need to step up their efforts and quinoa offers hope.

The quinoa quandary

Agronomical and nutritional attributes aside, quinoa’s global success relies on making it affordable. Consumers will not buy what they cannot afford, and farmers will not grow large quantities of a crop that is not financially viable.

Such is the so-called quinoa quandary that as the demand for quinoa has grown in recent years, so has its price. Less than $70 per ton a decade ago, quinoa now sells for more than $2,000, according to FAO figures.

In Bolivia, quinoa farmers near Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest body of water, carry waist-high stalks covered with purple, yellow, green and orange flowers to harvest. This is considered the cradle of great civilizations for the Tiahuanaco and the Incas, and is the origin of quinoa.

“Now people everywhere are buying quinoa. In La Paz, they sell it in the markets. It’s everywhere. For that reason we are also able to sell small quantities. With that money we sustain our families,” Elias Vargas, a farmer, told the United Nations.

Mr. Vargas and his neighbours sell their crops to a Bolivian coffee chain, Alexander Coffee, which uses quinoa in its salads, sandwiches and desserts. The company bakery turns out more than 1,000 quinoa chocolate chip cookies per day.

In the beginning it was hard to change the mentality,” recalled Pamy Quezada Velez, CEO of Alexander Coffee. Quinoa used to be known as ‘poor man’s food’ with Bolivians preferring to eat wheat and rice. “More people are opening up to the idea, and we’re doing well with quinoa.”

The partnership between small farmers and small businesses is part of a project supported by the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). While farmers like Mr. Vargas do not grow enough to sell to foreign markets, increased domestic consumption provides them with new opportunities.

Almost all of the estimated 250,000 acres of quinoa farmland is in the hands of small farmers and associations around the world. FAO estimates that at least 130,000 small quinoa growers from South America alone will benefit this year from increased sales, higher prices for their crops and a return to indigenous practices in a sustainable manner.

“In the traditional markets, it is still rather accessible to poor people but when you find it in the supermarket it tends to be rather expensive,” Mr. Bojanic said.

The rapid expansion of quinoa farming in the last years has been a double-edged sword. As prices rise, farmers are more likely to sell the quinoa crops they would have consumed, sparking concerns of malnutrition. About one-third of children under the age of five in the Andean countries are already chronically malnourished, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Quinoa fields on the Bolivian altiplano. Photo: Claudio Guzmán/FAO

The change in food choices as a result of higher income is also causing some farmers to turn from traditional staples to more caloric, processed foods. The change is particular among youth who would prefer a sugary soda to a home-made drink of boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour.

In addition, the increased incentives to produce more quinoa are also contributing to land disputes. “Land that had barely any use in the past and small farmers who were not in conflict are starting to – now that the land has more value – struggle among themselves so they can claim such lands to produce quinoa,” Mr. Bojanic said.

Property disputes are further aggravated by reverse migration, as the high prices for quinoa are motivating residents who moved to cities to return to plots, and by not giving the soil enough time to rest between harvests.

The push for increased production is seemingly at odds with the traditional life of the quinoa farmers, a main reason quinoa was selected for the honour. But UN officials stress that boosting the importance of developing sustainable production systems for quinoa consumption and food security are among the main objectives for the year.

Boosting sustainable agricultural practices and partnerships

The International Year of Quinoa, is overseen by the IYQ- International Coordination Committee composed of the ministries of agriculture of Andean countries and France. Bolivia has the presidency of the Committee, with Ecuador, Peru and Chile sharing the vice-presidency.

“The reaction is very enthusiastic,” said Mr. Bojanic. “Governments are looking at a coordinated approach to increase production nationally and regionally.”

Experimental quinoa plants at the Instituto Nacional Autónomo de Investigaciones Agropecuarias in Ecuador. Photo: INIAP

In the public sector, the UN is looking to engage with international agricultural research centres and national research centres on a global research network and gene bank database to maintain the crop’s 120 variations. The idea is that experts will test the crops and show farmers how they can best be grown under different conditions.

Professor Luz Gomez Pando is one of the local experts and scholars working with the UN in Lima, Peru. Based at La Molina University, she uses nuclear radiation to develop new varieties of quinoa that have a higher yield. The gamma rays speed up the evolution process that would take millions of years in nature. She then gives her seeds to the women farmers and at harvest time, cooks quinoa with them.

“I am from the highland above 3,000 metres and I was the daughter of two farmers,” Ms. Gomez told UN Radio and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “What we need right now is to have these crops very fast in big fields.”

The majority of quinoa is produced using traditional technologies that result in low yields. A hectare normally results in 600 kg of quinoa. FAO wants to raise the production to a ton of quinoa per hectare. That would help raise the overall production from 70,000 tons per year to 200,000 tones annually by 2018 through improved technologies and engagement with businesses already processing quinoa, including large importers and exporters.



Understanding the different dimensions of malnutrition (undernutrition) to maximize human capital development (Part 2: the facts)

This is it!

We are moving to the next blog and we will start by defining briefly the different dimensions of malnutrition (undernutrition) using an interactive approach (maps, figures and facts). It will be a long journey, but I think an interesting learning path not only for you, the people who are reading this blog but also for me and CKi. Let’s start …



What is malnutrition?

I won’t give you an academic definition of what is malnutrition. A simple way to understand the concept is the fact that:

Hunger = Undernutrition = Malnutrition


Malnutrition = undernutrition or overnutrition

Malnutrition = not enough diversified foods in quantity and/or quality


To be healthy (not malnourished): you need to eat well….Your body needs to digest the food and absorb the nutrients released during the digestion process appropriately… Finally, the cells in your body need to use effectively the absorbed nutrients to build tissue, provide energy and/or regulate various organ and cell functions


Environmental issues like disease, stress… can affect the overall mechanism and exacerbate the degree of malnutrition


Complicate…. No!


Tackling the problem of malnutrition demands an integrated approach


 Undernitrition – where are we in 2013?

Undernutrition affects millions of people each year all over the world, although the main concentration of cases is found in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (see figure below).

figure 1

870 million people are undernourished in the world today. That means one in eight people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.

Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. It is recognized as the underlying cause of nearly a third of deaths from all diseases in children in pre-school years. In fact, maternal and child undernutrition account for 11 % of the global burden of disease.

The different types of undernutrition:

figure 2

(UNICEF information)

There are two main types of undernutrition as shown in the figure above: growth failure and micronutrient deficiency(see figure below). Each form of undernutrition depends on what nutrients are missing in the diet, for how long and at what age. They include:

1)      Growth failure:

  • Severe and moderate forms of acute malnutrition (leading to wasting) are indicated by a low weight-for-height or presence of bilateral oedemas. This occurs as a result of recent rapid weight loss, or a failure to gain weight within a reasonably short period of time. Wasting occurs more frequently with infants and young children, often during the stages where complementary foods are being introduced to their diets (6 to 24 months), and when children are typically more susceptible to infectious diseases. Acute malnutrition can result from food shortages, a recent bout of illness, inappropriate child care or feeding practices or a combination of these factors.

According to Action Against Hunger, It is estimated that around 41 million children globally have moderate acute malnutrition (MAM). Most children with MAM live in southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, it is suggested that there are potentially 20 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) every year, and an estimated 0.5 million to 2 million children with SAM die each year, depending on the type of reporting mechanism.

Sixty percent of all the wasted children (both moderate and severe) in the world live in ten countries (see table below); India being the more affected with ~25 million children suffering of moderate and/or severe acute malnutrition.

figure 3

(UNICEF information)

  • Stunting or chronic undernutrition, resulting in growth retardation, is indicated by a low height for-age. The causes and etiology of stunting include nutrition, infection and mother-infant interaction. Stunting is a cumulative process that can begin in utero and continue until the age of 3 years after birth, compromising the growth of a child. The consequences of becoming and remaining stunted are increased risk of morbidity, mortality, delays in motor and mental development, and decreased work capacity.

Stunting is estimated by the UNICEF to affect 800 million people worldwide. 195 million children under 5 years of ages are stunted. The prevalence of stunting is highest in Africa (40%), and the largest number of stunted children is in Asia (112 million), mostly in South-central Asia (India). Ninety per cent of the overall global burden of child stunting is attributable to 36 countries (see figure below).


(HUMANOSPHERE information)

  • Underweight is a composite measure of both acute and chronic malnutrition, indicated by a low weight-for-age.

figure 6

In 2011, an estimated 17%, or 99 million children under five years of age in developing countries were underweight. As shown in the figure above, underweight is most common in South-central Asia (30%), followed by Western, Eastern, and Middle Africa (22%, 19% and 17%, respectively) and South-Eastern Asia (17%). The situation is better in Eastern and Western Asia, Northern Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, where less than 10% of children were underweight.

What is well known is the fact that:

1)  Children in the poorest households are twice as likely to be underweight as those in the least poor households.

2) Children living in rural areas are more likely to be underweight than those living in urban areas.

The proportion of children under five years old in developing countries who were underweight has declined by 11 percentage points between 1990 and 2011, from 28% to 17% (see figure below). During this period of time, good progress has been made in Western Asia (reduction from 14% to 5%), Eastern Asia (reduction from 15% to 3%), Caribbean (reduction from 9% to 4%), Central America (reduction from 11% to 4%) and South America (reduction from 6% to 3%). In South-eastern Asia, underweight has declined but remains high at 17%. In contrast, underweight continues to be very high in South-central Asia (30%). This combined with large population, means that most underweight children live in South-central Asia (56 million in 2011). Actually, India has the second higher % of children aged <5 years that are underweighed (43.5%). Finally, as shown in the figure below, progress is still insufficient in Africa. One interesting point is the fact that we don’t know yet if rising food prices and the current economic crisis have affected the latest trends in some populations, it is too early to draw firm conclusions.

figure 7 

2)      The micronutrient deficiency:

Micronutrient deficiencies occur when the body does not have sufficient amounts of vitamins or minerals due to insufficient dietary intake and/or insufficient absorption and/or suboptimal utilization of the vitamins or minerals by the body. One out of 3 people (2 billion people) worldwide are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies, according to the WHO.

Three, perhaps the most important in terms of health consequences for poor people in developing countries, are:

  • An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient. An estimated 250,000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. Moreover, in vitamin A deficient areas, it is likely that a substantial proportion of pregnant women is vitamin A deficient.
  • Iron deficiency is a principal cause of anemia. Two billion people—over 30% of the world’s population—are anemic. For children, health consequences include premature birth, low birth weight, infections, and elevated risk of death. For pregnant women, anemia contributes to 20% of all maternal deaths.

In many countries, more than half of all women of reproductive age are anemic (see figure below).


  • Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) put at risk children´s mental health– often their very lives. Serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy may result in stillbirths, abortions and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave, irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine-deficient areas of Africa and Asia. IDD affects over 740 million people, 13% of the world’s population. Fifty million people have some degree of mental impairment caused by IDD.

The figure below shows the areas at high risk of micronutrient deficiency for iron, vitamin A and iodine in the developing world. What is interesting to note is the fact that micronutrient deficiency affects a larger range of low and middle-income countries, more than the problem of underweight and/or stunting (see figure above). Globally, the problem is enormous and needs a special attention.


The two new dimensions of undernutrition:

Improving the health of mothers, newborns and children and reducing the number of preventable deaths are top priorities for many stakeholders working in both the developed and developing worlds. Improving child and maternal health is also an important strategy in the long term because it relates to the fetal origin of adult disease like hypertension, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In this new context where we are moving from saving life to improving human development and preventing adult disease, two important dimensions of undernutrition need to be discussed independently. They are:

  • Maternal undernutrition, resulting in poor nutritional status of the mother during preconception, pregnancy and post-natal stages, is indicated by a low Body Mass Index (BMI) and micronutrient deficiencies.

In nowadays, the prevalence of low body mass index (BMI <18.5 kg m-2) among women 15–49 years of age may be as high as 26.5% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 35% in South/Southeast Asia, 15.5% in Caribbean and 4% in Latin America. As shown in the figure below, India is again among the countries with the higher level of underweight women (> 20%). It is important to keep in mind that maternal short stature and low body mass index independently have adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes.

figure 4


It was really difficult to find a visual representation of the worldwide prevalence of underweight among women aged 20-49 years old. The map above shows both the prevalence of underweight and overweight in 57 low to middle income countries. What is quite interesting is the fact thatthe prevalence of overweight in young women residing in both urban and rural areas is higher than those in underweight women, especially in countries at higher levels of socioeconomic development. The best examples are Brazil and South Africa (the worse situation), the exception is India.

  • Low birth weight (LBW) of newborn infants is defined as weighing less than 2,500 g at birth irrespective of gestational age (WHO). More common in developing than developed countries, a birth weight below 2,500 g contributes to a range of poor health outcomes like low fetal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, inhibited growth and cognitive development, and chronic diseases later in life. Birth weight is affected to a great extent by the mother’s own fetal growth and her diet from birth to pregnancy, and thus, her body composition at conception.

 More than 20 million infants worldwide, representing 15.5 %of all births are born with low birth weight, 95.6 % of them in developing countries. The level of low birth weight in developing countries (16.5 %) is more than double the level in developed regions (7 %).

figure 5

Half of all low birth weight babies are born in South-central Asia, where 27 % of all infants weigh less than 2,500 g at birth. Low birth weight levels in sub-Saharan Africa are around 15 %. Central and South America have, on average, much lower rates (10 %), while in the Caribbean the level is almost as high as in sub-Saharan Africa (14%). About 10 % of births in Oceania are low birth weight births. Interestingly, almost 70 % of all low birth weight births occur in Asia; mainly in India, which is also the country with the high prevalence of stunting.

To summarize:

Undernutrition is a major issue, the numbers talk by themselves:

  • 2 billion people worldwide are micronutrient deficient
  • 870 million undernourished people in the world
  • 800 million people worldwide are stunted
  • Asia and the Pacific have the largest share of the world’s hungry people (563 million)
  • 195 million children under 5 are stunted
  • 99 million children under 5 worldwide are underweight
  • 61 million children suffered from acute malnutrition, including 20 million suffering from severe acute malnutrition
  • 20 million children are born with restricted intrauterine growth or prematurely
  • Every year at least 3.5 million of children under 5 die from malnutrition-related causes
  • Women make up a little over half of the world’s population, but they account for over 60% of the world’s hungry
  • 468 million women aged 15 to 49 years (30% of all women) are anemic, at least half because of iron deficiency

Tackling the issue of undernutrition in the word will need significant progress in India because:

  • 230 million people go hungry daily (~1/3 of the worldwide undernourished people)
  • An estimated 40% of the world’s severely malnourished children under 5 live in India
  • 60 million children are underweight
  • 48 % children under 5 are stunted
  • Half of the country’s children are chronically malnourished and 80 % are anemic
  • 30 % of children are born with low birth weight
  • Child malnutrition is responsible for 22 % of the country’s burden of disease
  • At least half of infant deaths are related to malnutrition, often associated with infectious disease
  • More than 90 % of adolescent girls and 50 % of women are anemic



Understanding the different dimensions of malnutrition to maximize human capital development (Part I: Introduction)

Malnutrition (over (bad) and undernutrition) is a global issue not only in the developed world but also in the developing countries. Its outcome is catastrophic in both cases. A simple act … feeding ourselves and our children appropriately seems to be not so easy. Why? There are many reasons that I won’t discuss today in this blog. In fact, I would like to focus on the different dimensions of malnutrition (hunger and undernutrition) and its consequences in the context of international development, mainly because it is currently the “on fire” issue that needs to be addressed. For a lot of stakeholders including us, nutrition and food security represent the cornerstone for progress on other development fronts such as employment, education, the environment and health and in achieving a quality future for humankind.


Over the past five years, the fight against undernutrition and hunger is finally receiving the attention that it deserves:

  • Through the publication in the Lancet of a series of papers related to child and maternal undernutrition in 2008, which drew together evidence on key problems and proven solutions in nutrition (the next series will be launched in May 2013),
  • Followed by a number of initiatives, among other the endorsement of the ‘Scaling Up Nutrition’ Framework (SUN) by various stakeholders (2009). The SUN Framework calls for the implementation and scaling up of two complementary approaches. The first one is direct effective nutrition-specific interventions, focusing on pregnant women and children under two with short-term direct interventions such as the promotion of good nutritional practices, micronutrients, and complementary feeding. The second is a broader multi-sectoral nutrition-sensitive approach that tackles the determinants of undernutrition by promoting agriculture and food security, access to and consumption of nutritious foods, improving social protection, care practices and ensuring access to health care,
  • To the recent Rome meeting consultation on post-2015 development agenda co-led by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) that calls for food security and nutrition to be the central element in future development efforts not just for developing countries but for the global community as a whole.

Although the prevalence of malnutrition in developing countries is decreasing, it is still a major problem for many children. Understanding the problem and consequently formulating intervention programs at the local and national levels is a motion in progress but it still remains a complex and difficult issue.

The first reason being that the process of malnutrition expresses itself in different forms and with variable consequences.

A second reason making malnutrition a complex problem is that the primary causes – the interaction between insufficient food supply (quantity and quality) and the frequent recurrence of infectious diseases – are determined by a multitude of factors of different natures. This complexity – of its expressions, effects, and causality – makes it difficult to get a global vision and understanding of the problem.  

As we are moving in a new era where tackling the problem of malnutrition (hunger, undernutrition and bad nutrition) could be one major focus in the post-2015 development agenda, it is important to better understand the pathophysiology of malnutrition and the factors that influence the growth process in preschool age to help to better direct actions.

During the next few weeks, we will try to answer these questions:

What are the different dimensions of malnutrition (i.e. hunger and undernutrition), the causes, the consequences, and the proposed strategies/solutions to make undernutrition “the world’s number one solvable problem”?

We will focus more specifically on stunting (a not so well known complex aspect of malnutrition with long term impact), micronutrient deficiencies (one of the most cost effective solutions to tackle some specific consequences of malnutrition), the long-term consequences of undernutrition in the context of child and maternal health, the importance of protein intake for human capital development. Finally, we will try to summarize the most appropriate strategy that would use a combination of direct effective nutrition-specific interventions and a broader multi-sectoral nutrition-sensitive approach that tackles the determinants of undernutrition.

Time to move to the next blog….

Why millions of people choose to live in urban squalor?

As international development practitioners, we have had many occasions to visit slums in Africa or anywhere in the world. Personally, my more difficult time was in Port-au-Prince and in this specific context; poverty in the countryside has seemed to me almost Arcadian by comparison. The rural poor may lack nutrition, health care, education, and infrastructure but they can farm still in settings that not only are more bucolic, but also represent the condition of most of humanity for most of history.

With life so squalid in urban slums, why would anyone want to move there?

This is an interesting question that Charles Kenny has tried to address in his article “In Praise of Slums” published in the Foreign Policy magazine. In this new blog, we propose to describe and discuss some of his major ideas, highlight the missing aspects, if there are some and finally we will focus on one of our main centers of interest, i.e. the nutrition.

According to Charles Kenny, there are two reasons for choosing to live in urban slums

1- Because slums are better than the alternative

Most people who’ve experienced both rural and urban poverty choose to stay in slums rather than move back to the countryside. That includes hundreds of millions of people in the developing world over the past few decades, including 130 million migrant workers in China alone. They follow a well-trodden path of seeking a better life in the bright lights of the city and in this new century, the probability of living a better life is better than ever. In the case of China, world economic supremacy and extensive industrialization can explain this result. For some African countries that are currently experiencing a sustained economic growth, it can be the same.

2 – Start with the simple reason that most people leave the countryside: money

Everyone is after the same thing…. Prosperity!

Moving to cities makes economic sense. Rich countries are urbanized countries, and rich people are predominantly town and city dwellers.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, 600 cities worldwide account for 60% of global economic output ( While 600 cities will continue to account for the same share of global GDP in 2025, this group will have a very different membership. Over the next 15 years, the center of gravity of the urban world will move south and, even more decisively, east. By 2025, 136 new cities are expected to enter the top 600, all of them from the developing world and overwhelmingly—100 new cities—from China.

Slum dwellers may be at the bottom of the urban heap, but most are better off than their rural counterparts. In fact, while about half the world’s population is urban, only a quarter of those living on less than a dollar a day live in urban areas. In Brazil, for example, where the word “poor” conjures images of both Rio’s vertiginous favelas and indigenous Amazonian tribes living in rural privation, only 5% of the urban population is classified as extremely poor, compared with 25% of those living in rural areas (

But is it much of a life, eking out an existence in today’s urban squalor!

According to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), urbanization could be an emerging humanitarian disaster (


Because it grows too fast! To give you an example, the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, will grow from 186,000 to 500,000 inhabitants by 2020. According to United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), all population growth from now on will be in cities: the urban population is projected to grow to 4.9 billion by 2030, increasing by 1.6 billion while the rural population shrinks by 28 million.

According to the NEJM’s article, this transition is happening chaotically, resulting in a disorganized urban landscape. Although many expect urbanization to mean an improved quality of life, this rising tide does not lift all boats, and many poor people are rapidly being absorbed into urban slums. The UN-Habitat reports that 43% of urban residents in developing countries such as Kenya, Brazil, and India and 78% of those in the least-developed countries such as Bangladesh and Haiti live in such slums.

In fact, urbanization could be a health hazard for certain vulnerable populations, and this demographic shift threatens to create a humanitarian disaster. The threat comes both in the form of rising rates of endemic disease such as pulmonary diseases, diabetes and hypertension and a greater potential for epidemics and even pandemics like cholera. Indeed, increasing the population density in cities without proper water supplies and sanitation increases the risk of transmission of communicable diseases.

Countries like Ghana and Ethiopia because of their current and projected economic growth and the will of their governments to reduce the impact of poverty may be able to respond adequately to this demographic shift by offering not only the needed access to health services but also the necessary infrastructures like housing, and water and sanitation. These two countries are among the four African countries that are going to reach some of the MDGs in 2015. Progresses are there! Regrettably, for other countries like Haiti, it may take evermore. Kenya is another example (see below).

But slum living today, for all its failings, is markedly better than it was in Dickens’s time.

According to Charles Kenny, “urban quality of life now involves a lot more actual living. Through most of history, death rates in cities were so high that urban areas only maintained population levels through constant migration from the countryside. In Dickensian Manchester, for instance, the average life expectancy was just 25 years, compared to 45 years in rural Surrey. Across the world today, thanks to vaccines and underground sewage systems, average life expectancies in big cities are considerably higher than those in the countryside; in sub-Saharan Africa, cities with a population over 1 million have had infant mortality rates one-third lower than those in rural areas. In fact, most of today’s urban population growth comes not from waves of villagers moving to the city, but city folks having kids and living longer.”

The comparison with Dickens’s time is quite powerful! Fortunately, conditions are better. It would be interesting to bring another layer of social context and to compare the living conditions of rural populations in developing countries with those of the peasants of Dikens’s time. Have they improved also? Unfortunately, we could not find any pertinent information regarding this specific point.

However, Birchenall showed in his article entitle “Economic Development and the Escape from High Mortality” ( that while mortality in cities in developed countries during the 20th century declined drastically due to health interventions, mortality in cities started to decline once death rates in rural areas were already declining. In fact, agricultural changes associated with economic development initiated the escape from high mortality and provided the conditions for higher population and higher income in the world. As food availability increased, anthropometric and epidemiological evidences indicate that people in developed countries became taller, heavier, and less susceptible to infectious diseases, especially to diseases in which nutritional status has a definite influence. According to Birchenall, the contribution of per capita income to the world mortality decline from diseases sensitive to nutrition can be as large as 45%. The contribution to the overall mortality decline and to the decline of all infectious diseases is close to 30%.

Access to health, economic development and more importantly good nutrition (quantity as well as quality) were the pillars of the escape from high mortality for the developed countries over the past two centuries. Normally, an historical analysis can show us the appropriate path to follow. Are we observing the same pattern in developing countries? This is an interesting question.

Why are the different elements that can explain a better quality of life?

The latest analyses show ed  that one of the element is a better access to services

Data from surveys across the developing world suggest that poor households in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have piped water as those in rural areas, and they’re nearly four times more likely to have a flush toilet (

In India, very poor urban women are about as likely to get prenatal care as the non-poor in rural areas. And in 70% of countries surveyed by MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, school enrollment for girls ages 7 to 12 is higher among the urban poor than the rural poor.

That said, modern slum dwellers – about one-third of the urban population in developing countries — are some of the least likely to get vaccines or be connected to sewage systems (

That means ill health in informal settlements is far more widespread than city averages would suggest. In the slums of Nairobi, for example, child mortality rates are more than twice the city average and higher, in fact, than mortality rates in Kenya’s rural areas. But Nairobi’s slums are atypically awful, more an indicator of the Kenyan government’s dysfunction than anything else.

In most developing countries, even the poorest city dwellers do better than the average villager. Banerjee and Duflo ( found that, among people living on less than a dollar a day, infant mortality rates in urban areas were lower than rural rates in two-thirds of the countries for which they had data. In India, the death rate for babies in the first month of life is nearly one-quarter lower in urban areas than in rural villages. So significant is the difference in outcomes that population researcher Martin Brockerhoff concludes that “millions of children’s lives may have been saved” in the 1980s alone as the result of mothers worldwide moving to urban areas ( An interesting statement!

But who are the hungry – the rural or the urban population?

According to the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics, there are 925 million hungry people in the world and 98% of them are in developing countries.  They are distributed like this:

578 million in Asia and the Pacific

239 million in Sub-Saharan Africa

53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean

37 million in the Near East and North Africa

And 19 million in developed countries

Three-quarters of all hungry people live in rural areas, mainly in the villages of Asia and Africa. Tremendously dependent on agriculture for their food, these populations have no alternative source of income or employment. This is critical when there is only one raining season. If the crops production is compromised because of the lack of rain, then the farmers may migrate to cities in their search for employment, swelling the ever-expanding populations of shanty towns in developing countries.

FAO calculates that around half of the world’s hungry people are from smallholder farming communities, surviving off marginal lands prone to natural disasters like drought or flood. Another 20% belong to landless families dependent on farming and about 10% live in communities whose livelihoods depend on herding, fishing or forest resources.

The remaining 20% live in shanty towns on the periphery of the biggest cities in developing countries. Something we need to keep in mind is the fact that the numbers of poor and hungry city dwellers are rising rapidly along with the world’s total urban population. In this context, continued efforts are needed to reduce urban disparities and inequities associated with poverty.

Without any surprise – the more vulnerable are the children and the women!

An estimated 146 million children in developing countries are underweight – the result of acute or chronic hunger (UNICEF, 2009).  All too often, child hunger is inherited: up to 17 million children are born underweight annually, the result of inadequate nutrition before and during pregnancy. Furthermore, if we look specifically the urban situation: research indicates that urban infants suffer growth retardation at an earlier age than their rural counterparts, and that urban children are more likely to have rickets. While the urban diets are often more varied and include higher levels of animal protein and fat, rural diets may be superior in terms of calories and total protein intake. Average food consumption is lower and estimates of undernutrition generally higher in urban areas. However, physical malnutrition in children is markedly worse in the rural population, possibly because urban dwellers, of whatever social group, have lower energy demand than subsistence farmers.

Several associated factors account for nutritional deprivation among slum dwellers. One problem is the inability to adapt to new staples and a new structure of food prices. Food purchases of the urban poor are heavily dependent on competing demand for unavoidable non-food expenditure such as transport to work, housing and remittances to relatives in the countryside. The urban poor seldom have easy access to central markets due to public transport costs and are thus compelled to buy their food in small quantities from local shops at higher prices. They may have little time to prepare food, no suitable space for cooking and no money for fuel. As a result, the poor often rely mainly on small-scale local vendors to prepare meals with little regard for hygiene or food safety. When I was in Port-au-Prince, I saw a gigantic accumulation of white containers in the different canals and rivers that cross the city – demonstrating the importance of the “take-out  system” despite the high level of poverty.

On the other side, women are the world’s primary food producers, yet cultural traditions and social structures often mean women are much more affected by hunger and poverty than men. A mother who is stunted or underweight due to an inadequate diet often give birth to low birth weight children.

According to UNICEF, around 50% of pregnant women in developing countries are iron deficient. Lack of iron means 315,000 women die annually from hemorrhage at childbirth. As a result, women, and in particular expectant and nursing mothers, often need special or increased intake of food.

One major issue in urban undernutrition identified by most UN agencies is that of time constraints on urban women. They are more likely to be household heads, particularly in Latin America, and often lack social support networks found in rural areas. For many low-income female workers who leave home early in the morning and return late at night, bottle feeding of infants has become an absolute necessity. But commercial milk powders are often unhygienically prepared, creating a positive threat to infants’ health. In some urban communities, large scale introduction of bottle feeding has already changed the type and incidence of protein-energy malnutrition. Marasmus, a severe form of protein-energy deficiency, is becoming more frequent among younger children in urban areas. In four Bangkok slums, the prevalence of protein-calorie malnutrition was attributed to failure to breastfeed, early weaning and inadequate artificial feeding.

Slum life remains grim.

HIV prevalence rates are twice as high in urban areas of Zambia as they are in rural areas, for instance, and the story is worse with typhoid in Kenya. Slum residents are also at far greater risk from violence, outdoor air pollution, and traffic accidents than their rural counterparts. And the closer conditions in slum areas get to a state of anarchy mixed with kleptocracy, the more health and welfare outcomes tend to resemble those of Dickensian Manchester.

But all things considered, slum growth is a force for good. It could be an even stronger driver of development if leaders stopped treating slums as a problem to be cleared and started treating them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics.

As Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser puts it: “slums don’t make people poor — they attract poor people who want to be rich. So let’s help them help themselves”.

Definition: What is a slum?

A slum household is a household that lacks any one of the following five elements:

Access to improved water

Access to improved sanitation

Security of tenure

Durability of housing

Sufficient living area


If you would like to read more interesting articles from Charles Kenny,

go to:

Equal Rights for Disabled People in Developing Countries to Safe Water& Accessible Toilets

Using a dirty washroom can be a real challenge. This is the kind of defy I face when I travel and work overseas. Each time, I think I am a lucky girl, imaging what it would be like if I were disabled!

Disabled people represent the largest socially excluded group across the world. In many cases, they live without access to basic toilets, thus exacerbating poverty and lack of dignity. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the world’s first report on disability, showing that over a billion people—15% of the world’s population—are disabled, a large majority of whom living in developing countries.

Interestingly, disabled people have historically been excluded from development work and research. One of the best examples is the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, How can we impact significantly the different facets of global poverty, if there is not a specific focus on the poorest of the poor—i.e. the disabled.

Disability is less about health and far more about social and economic barriers to inclusion. Poor sanitation, unsafe water, a lack of access to healthcare, and malnutrition can all lead to disabling conditions. For this reason, the WHO report puts safe water and sanitation at the centre of helping to prevent disability and poverty.

Accessible toilets enable disabled people to be independent and lead healthier, more dignified lives. Simple adaptations can make a world of difference, allowing a disabled person to use a latrine rather than needing to defecate in the open. This would help to put an end to poor health and debilitating diarrhea.

WaterAid ( is committed to ensuring access for all and breaking down the barriers that face disabled people.

To read more about the different initiatives undertaken by WaterAid and how simple ideas and technology can change lives and re-establish a person in society, go to:

~~Stay tuned for updates about the wonderful things happening around the world~~