Although the Asia Development Bank predicts robust growth in the next few years, it says malnutrition affecting Cambodia’s children must be addressed now to ensure sustained growth for future generations.
The ADB predicts Cambodia will have 7.2 per cent growth this year, increasing to 7.5 per cent in 2014 with the recovery of its main export partners, the US and Europe.
Critical to this outlook is the issue of child malnutrition. The ADB links the first 1,000 days of a child’s life to the longer-term growth prospects of the country, saying that “functional losses in this period can never be recovered.”
Speaking at a conference yesterday to launch the ADB’s 2013 outlook, senior social sector specialist Karin Schelzig took a “life-cycle approach” that looked at skills development from birth, to schooling, through to workforce readiness and entrepreneurship, to describe what is needed for a child born today to ensure a productive contribution to the economy.
“Getting the right start in life with the proper nutrition and cognitive stimulation is the foundation for everything that follows,” she said.
“The poor nutritional status of today’s children will have an impact on future productivity and economic growth.”
Findings from Cambodia’s recent demographic and health survey show that 40 per cent of children under the age of five are “stunted” or shorter than they are supposed to be, which is well above the Southeast Asia average of 19 per cent, Schelzig says.
The survey also found that from 2005 to 2010, the percentage of underweight children had remained about 30 per cent, but the ratio of children deemed “wasted”, or too thin, had increased over the same period from eight to 11 per cent.
According to Schelzig, tackling malnutrition requires a community-based approach across multiple sectors, including access to quality food, nutritional education, promotion of breast-feeding practices, improvement of pregnant women’s diets and health services, and decreasing nutrient loss though the better processing and storage of food.
Dr Hang Chuon Naron, secretary of state at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said that although indicators relating to poverty and inequality had improved, malnutrition had not decreased, and a paradigm shift was required to change behaviour.
“Fifty-seven per cent of households in rural areas lack toilet facilities: they build infrastructure such as roads and bridges to improve access, but toilets are private and people have to change their habits,” Naron said.
Asia Development Bank deputy country director Peter Brimble says Cambodia should focus on malnut-rition to enhance workforce capacity and growth in the longer term.
“Building the skills and the human capital would, in my mind, be the key thing to focus on,” Brimble said.