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Bangladesh battles child malnutrition 40 years on from independence

Today, Bangladesh celebrates its 40th birthday. Formerly ‘East Pakistan’, the country became an independent state on December 16th 1971. This followed a nine-month war with West Pakistan in which over three million people died.

Soon after independence, Bangladesh experienced political turbulence, mismanagement and widespread famine in which another one million died. It’s hardly any wonder then that many onlookers at the time were pessimistic about the country’s future.

However, Bangladesh has come a long way. Corruption and mismanagement are still a huge problem, but regular elections and a free press ensure popular dissatisfaction can be expressed. The country’s economy has also been growing steadily at between 5-6% in recent years. International aid now accounts for just 2% of the annual development budget (compared to 85% thirty years ago). And significant strides have been made in education and health. For example, Bangladesh is one of only 16 countries set to achieve its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for reducing child mortality rates. In 1991, there were 146 deaths among under-fives for every 1,000 live births; in 2009, this had dropped to 52.

Bangladesh has also been praised by the United Nations for its “impressive feats in pulling people out of poverty”. Poverty measures, such as food and cash transfers for families affected by natural disasters, have helped tackle hunger. And various climate adaption and farm credit programmes are beginning to boost food production and help families cope with regular flooding. 

However, the feeding of the country’s 160 million people continues to be a huge challenge. Malnutrition rates have lowered from over a decade ago, when over half of young children were underweight. But rates still remain stubbornly high; according to data from the World Health Organization, 41% of under-fives are underweight. Bangladesh is not expected to meet its MDG target of reducing this to 33 per cent by 2015.

Higher global food prices also represent a growing threat. In its recent World Disaster Report focusing on hunger and malnutrition, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) highlighted studies in Bangladesh which showed malnutrition rates among young children rise in times of food price hikes. This is mainly because poor families spend more on buying the staple food of rice, but cut down on nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and dairy. In a country where over 80% of people’s diet consists of rice, organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), are running programmes to provide information to families about nutrition. With better education about food and support for small-scale farmers, non-governmental organizations are continuing to support the Bangladeshi government in its ongoing battle against malnourishment among children.

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