Speech by Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director, at the High Level Meeting on Nutrition New York, 20 September 2011

The emergency in the Horn of Africa has become a catastrophe, where more than 300,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition and are in immediate peril. Their suffering may be receding from our front pages and our television screens…their suffering may be off camera…but each one could soon be dead.


And there is another number about global suffering: 20 million.

That is the number of children afflicted with severe acute malnutrition around the world – nearly seventy times the number of severely malnourished children in the Horn of Africa. Imagine if all of those children were in one region. That would be seen as one of the worst child catastrophes ever. And remember, every one of them is a child whose life is in danger and whose parents could, very soon, grieve her or his loss.

They are 20 million reasons why we must lift nutrition higher up our list of global concerns.

20 million.

There is another number…and it represents another silent emergency. Somewhere between 170 million and 180 million children around the world, depending on how you calculate it, are stunted.

180 million.

Stunting is the irreversible outcome of chronic nutritional deficiency during the first thousand days of a child’s life. And the damage it causes to a child’s development is permanent. That child will never learn, nor earn, as much as he or she could have if properly nourished in early life. What a loss for that child. What a loss for that society.

Just 21 countries account for more than 80 per cent of the global stunting burden. In six countries, 50 per cent or more of all children under five suffer from this terrible – and preventable – condition. And under-nutrition is not exclusive to the lowest-income countries or the poorest communities. It can occur in children who live in food-secure households and in food-secure countries.

For far too long, this silent emergency has received far too little attention. Even though, in 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus ranked providing young children with micronutrients the most cost-effective way to advance global welfare.

But thanks to the SUN movement and the leadership of many governments represented here today, the global community has begun to recognize that nutrition is – and must be – more than a footnote in the food security debate.
Nutrition security should be an essential element of every national development plan – as critical as clean water, as indispensable as education.

UNICEF is committed to seeing this through. We will continue…

To design programmes with governments that improve mother-child nutrition...

To provide essential supplies like Vitamin A, zinc and iron supplements, and ready-to-use therapeutic foods…

To train more community workers to feed children and keep them healthy…

To collaborate with all our partners to monitor these efforts and build on what works…

For UNICEF and all those in the SUN movement, this is not only the right thing to do, it is the practical thing to do.

In only one year, the number of countries beginning to implement national strategies to reduce stunting has increased dramatically. Now, we must build on this momentum. We must integrate our efforts and join the forces of the food, health and development communities…for the 300,000 children in the Horn…for the 20 million children, globally, suffering from severe acute malnutrition…and for the nearly 180 million children who are stunted.

Under-nutrition is preventable. And, therefore, inaction is unconscionable. Thank you very much.