High levels of childhood malnutrition present a staggering, yet avoidable, loss of human and economic potential for Laos, according to the World Bank.

Nationally, stunting affects over one third of all Lao children under the age of five, the Bank said in a brief on its website titled “Multi-Sector Convergence Approach to Reducing Malnutrition in the Lao PDR”.

“Current rates of maternal and child malnutrition represent a loss of human capital potentially costing the Lao PDR an estimated 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product [GDP] annually,” the Bank said.

A child born in Laos today is only 45 per cent as productive as he or she would be if they enjoyed complete education and full health.

Childhood stunting is associated with poor health, delayed child development, underperformance in school, and eventually reduced employment opportunities, and thus contributes to keeping communities in poverty.

Given the strong association between childhood stunting, poverty, and economic growth, investing in the early years, especially reducing malnutrition, is a key priority.

Long-term strategy

The World Bank has developed a multi-sectoral long-term strategy to support the Lao government to address malnutrition, aligned with the 8th National Socio-Economic Development Plan (2016-2020) and the National Nutrition Strategy to 2025.

International experience, based on evidence from other countries that have made progress in reducing stunting, suggests that to address childhood stunting effectively, a series of coordinated policies and programmes is needed to address the immediate, underlying, and basic causes of malnutrition, focusing on the critical first 1,000 days of life, according to the World Bank.

Unicef said stunted growth causes underdeveloped brains and bodies if children do not get the right type or amount of nutrients from food within the crucial first 1,000 days of life.

Several ongoing and upcoming World Bank operations will come together to support an innovative multi-sectoral and long-term nutrition convergence approach.

Projects will target the same households in the same geographic areas and will initially be implemented in 12 districts in Xieng Khuang, Huaphan, Phongsaly and Oudomxay provinces, which suffer from stunting levels above 40 per cent.

Effective implementation of a multi-sectoral approach will require strong leadership, guidance, and ownership at central, provincial, and district levels, as well as continuous monitoring and evaluation of its effectiveness in Laos.

A number of intervention projects to improve nutrition costing several million dollars have been or will be introduced from 2018-2022.

They included a health governance and nutrition development project, health and nutrition services access, an early childhood education project, and reducing rural poverty and malnutrition project. VIENTIANE TIMES