DAKAR (AlertNet) – West African governments need to make nutrition a priority issue if they are to stave off food emergencies that cause thousands of personal tragedies as currently seen in the horn of Africa, a former President of Cape Verde has said.
António Monteiro, who ruled the archipelago off the West African coast between 1991 and 2001, was unveiled on Thursday as a nutrition advocate by the Nutrition Working Group for West Africa, an organisation of U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations that will support Monteiro during his two-year post.
“What we want is that all countries in West Africa prioritise nutrition to prevent major disasters and I have to talk to authorities in these countries so that nutrition is included in the political agenda as a priority,” Monteiro told reporters in Dakar.
Each year around 600,000 children under five in the region die from causes related to malnutrition, accounting for 35 percent of all child deaths in the region.
Drought and crop failure stoke nutrition issues, as was the case last year when 10 million people faced food shortages in the Sahel belt which runs south of the Sahara desert.
“Proven approaches and policies are not always a high priority for governments because of a lack of expertise and funding,” Felicite Tchibindat, the U.N. Children’s Fund regional adviser for nutrition, said in a statement.
“But if we are to break a cycle of poverty, death and chronic emergency there has to be an improvement in the nourishment children receive from the moment they are born,” Tchibindat added.
Nutrition experts say technical departments in West African countries have made strides in understanding and tackling malnutrition concerns, but that more needs to be done to prioritise nutrition as part of development, increase government spending and address common misconceptions that food security alone will ensure adequate nutrition.
“If there is a lack of attention in nutrition it is largely due to lack of understanding,” Shawn Baker, the regional director for Africa of the U.S.-based charity Hellen Keller International.
Unlike other major health challenges in the region such as HIV or malaria, malnutrition is often invisible and the consequences are not known to the leaders and senior government officials who make decisions on the allocation of resources, he said.
“To have an advocate like former president Monteiro is a huge plus for us because he can talk to these men and women whom he knew during his 10 years in power about the importance of nutrition,” Baker said at a news conference in Dakar.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)