The Sri-Lankan Government, the World Bank and independent development agencies has co-launched a national nutritional health program, designed to critically discuss and debate key nutritional issues facing the country.
Its inaugural workshop “Nutrition in Sri-Lanka: Rethink Yesterday, Change Tomorrow” set as its primary agenda, the opening of a vital channel of dialogue in systematically tackling the twin issues of increasing malnutrition and obesity that face the country.
A recent Health report by the World Bank, “Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development” places strong emphasis on the definitive correlational link between malnutrition and the propagation of poverty and its effective undermining of national economic growth.
Sri Lanka under performing
In light of this, the World Bank has called upon Governments in developing countries to incorporate the issue of national nutritional health into the national development agenda; a suggestion that these Governments have been slow to act upon.
Statistical data shows that despite demonstrating better Health-Indicators than most developing countries with comparable per capita incomes, with the lowest infant-mortality and the highest life-expectancy rates in the wider South Asian region, Sri-Lanka is still under-performing in the area of nutritional health.
According to calculations by health-experts, the average Sri-Lankan requires an intake of 2260 calories per day. The average Sri-Lankan in 1996-7 consumed a daily intake of only 2331 calories. Availability and access to protein, particularly animal protein, has steadily increased over the years. But it is the equality of that access which is at issue here.
Over one third of children under weight
World Bank data shows that although child malnutrition in Sri-Lanka has fallen from 38% in 1987 to 29% in 2000, over one-third (29%) of Sri-Lankan children are reported to be grossly underweight, and an estimated 30% of women and children under the age of 5 are believed to be anaemic.
Of the developing countries with comparable per capita incomes, Sri-Lanka has the highest number of children who are underweight as a direct result of malnutrition, with a malnutrition rate that is three times the standard level expected for a country with such an impressive infant mortality record.
World Bank Nutritional Health experts have argued that cases of child malnutrition are often found to be highly subject to socioeconomic class, educational background and geography.
Malnutrition related regions
Surveys funded by the World Bank/Sri-Lankan Government partnered nutrition Program have recorded the highest rates of child malnutrition amongst those of the poorest social classes in the rural Uva Province, and also on isolated Plantation-Estates.
A survey by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) released in 2003 reported that children in the conflict-affected areas- most particularly in the Northern Jaffna Peninsula- suffer severe malnutrition, with one in four being “stunted” or too short for their age, and one in three “wasted” or underweight for their age. The survey also showed malnutrition levels in the war-torn North and North-Eastern regions of the country to be twice as high as the national average.
Food Security- and by extension nutritional security- is hugely threatened by poor financial access in low-income households, coupled with poor physical access in conflict-affected households.
May not meet the Millennium goals
Such findings undoubtedly carry dramatic implications for human capital development in Sri-Lanka. While malnutrition has been on the up-and-up, so has income poverty as shown by World Bank-sponsored developmental surveys. The survey report indicates that it is highly unlikely that Sri-Lanka will achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN of halving global poverty by the year 2015.
Peter Harrold, World Bank Country Director of Sri-Lanka says, “The two targets, poverty and malnutrition are closely linked…We need to understand why Sri-Lanka is lagging behind on these targets and address the issues immediately; for the one impacts on the other in significant ways”.