Mali: Why is malnutrition still "not a priority"?

News and Press Release
Originally published
BAMAKO, 14 May 2007 (IRIN) - Despite producing agricultural surpluses, Mali's malnutrition rates remain high. Analysts say that to focus only on food production is to ignore the multiple causes of short- and long-term malnutrition in the country and a broader approach from the government is needed.

"The government still does not speak about malnutrition in its programming documents and plans for development," said Moise Bello, programme officer for the World Food Programme (WFP).

He said there have been several unsuccessful lobbying attempts to get nutrition included in the national poverty reduction plans. But, he added, "For the moment, malnutrition is not considered a priority. Neither are there many aid agencies funded to fight malnutrition here."

Failure by some national and international officials to de-link food production and malnutrition when analysing the region's needs is widely seen as one of the key causes of more, rather than less, children dying in West and Central Africa every year, despite decades of food aid and poverty reduction programmes.

Malnutrition is the direct result of too few calories, lack of micronutrients in food, or inadequate food uptake by the body, for instance during diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases, malaria and epidemics such as meningitis. It is directly or indirectly the cause of over 50 percent of the deaths of children under five that occur in Mali every year, according to the UN children's agency (UNICEF).

According to the same statistics, in most areas of Mali between 6 and 17 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition - the level at which irreparable mental impairment and physical stunting can set in - and between 23 and 40 percent have chronic malnutrition. More than one in four Malian children dies before turning five.

Two years of relatively good harvests mean Mali has a surplus of its basic food products: rice and cereals. Mali's food security commissioner, Lansry Nana Yaya Haidara, told IRIN earlier this week that the government would not be giving free handouts of food this year because of the good harvests, a decision WFP says is correct because food handouts would disrupt markets.

Instead, people will be expected to rely on their own household stocks, or if they run out, to purchase from one of the 700 subsidised 'cereal banks' that have been set up in every commune of the country.

"There is no kind of crisis here this year because for the second year running we have a surplus," Haidara said, adding that improving people's access to food "was the main problem we faced".

The question remains what more will be done to tackle the country's serious structural problems.

Deaths resulting from malnutrition do not correlate to years of good or bad harvests, because dealing with it requires a broad range of responses ranging from educating people to diversify their diets and maintain better hygiene to avoid illness, and breastfeed, which gives infants far more nutrients than most foods, to improving health facilities and vaccinations.

"This is a serious malnutrition problem in Mali and it is because of structural problems," said Patricia Hoorelbeke, head of the Action Against Hunger nongovernmental organisation in Mali.