How can you measure progress in a developing country? In Bangladesh, you can do it with a yardstick.
Over the past 12 years, something incredible happened in Bangladesh: The kids grew taller than usual.
It's a discovery that, at first, left many development and nutrition experts scratching their heads. Just how — in parts of a country that lead the world in malnutrition and where global grain shortages are rampant — are children growing taller than usual?
When the experts fit the pieces all together, the results were amazing.
Bangladesh's kids grew taller because the country focused on its women.
We live in a world where millions of children aren't able to grow as big as they should because of a condition often referred to as stunting. It happens when kids are malnourished — and it happens a lot. More than 3 million children under the age of 5 die every year because of malnourishment.
But that's started to change in countries like Bangladesh.
In 2004, the poverty-fighting organization CARE, USAID, and the Bangladesh government teamed up to launch the SHOUHARDO project (which means “friendship” in Bangla and also stands for Strengthening Household Ability to Respond to DevelopmentOpportunities). At the time, they didn't realize the how much focusing on women's empowerment in the country would affect its children.
From 2006 to 2009, the country decreased stunting in its children by 28%.
That's nearly double the average of the typical food security project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
How'd they manage to do it? By providing women with resources that improve maternal health outcomes, access to safe sanitation, household assets, maternal education, and access to health services.
The benefits of the project go well beyond the lives of the women in the project — they spill into the lives of their families, their communities, and to the next generation.
It’s the best kind of domino effect.
“Women who participated in the empowerment interventions were getting better antenatal care, eating more nutritious food and getting more rest during pregnancy,” said TANGO International’s Lisa Smith, lead author of a paper about the project.
“They and their children also had better diets in terms of the variety of foods.”
We can prove that developing countries can help their kids to grow taller and healthier when organizations and governments work together.
Bangladesh's multidimensional approach to reducing childhood stunting should have world leaders taking notes.
And right now is the perfect time to grab them a pen.
On Aug. 4, 2016, global leaders and governments are convening at the Second High Level Summit on Nutrition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
There, they’ll discuss their roles in fighting hunger and malnutrition around the world. It'll be the largest, most important event to address global nutrition issues until 2020.
But as we know, talking isn’t enough. Governments will need to make policy changes and commit more resources to reducing the number of children affected by malnutrition — and that's exactly why the Generation Nutrition coalition is advocating for three main goals out of Rio: calling on world leaders to commit to action, building sustainable communities to focus on prevention, and making sure every child has the treatment they need.
Why does this matter? Well, food plays a critical role in virtually every aspect of the world’s future.
And, currently, only 4% of aid has a direct impact on nutrition. That's a problem.
When you consider food as a basic need of survival, it’s hard to argue that percentage shouldn’t be higher. Kids with a healthier shot at life will end up saving us big bucks in the long run, as problems from poor health and poverty only get worse and more expensive the longer they go on.
Seeing how women's empowerment can directly affect a child's ability to grow taller and healthier shows just how connected global issues are. It can help us more easily disrupt the cycle of poverty — and create a future where kids can grow to be their best selves.
The nutrition summit is an opportunity to help set a path toward better nutrition and futures for our world's children. But it's up to our leaders to actually help make that path a clearer one.