Tuesday, May 30, 2023


ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: It’s great to be here, Andrew [Mitchell], with you, and with you Cathy [Russell]. 

Just to say a word about what UNICEF does everyday in the world, it's really breathtaking. I got to witness the impact of wasting treatment firsthand last year meeting with severely wasted children in Kenya and their mothers – I should say children who had been severely wasted. Their mothers told me how they saw the color return to their cheeks and hearing infants that again have the energy to cry. We know that as a tell-tale sign, when that energy goes away, just how rough the kids are having it. And that’s UNICEF. You, Cathy, and your teams, have helped return hope to so many families. 

I feel just really grateful that USAID has had the chance to join you in leading these efforts. We made last year a historic, one-time contribution of $200 million to expand access to Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods. And when we did that, we issued a call for our partner governments, philanthropic foundations, and individuals who are out there, to match that donation. We didn’t give ourselves a lot of time in advance of the UN General Assembly, but really in just such a tribute to the compassion and relentlessness of so many people on this call, together we were able to raise another, unprecedented, $330 million for wasting treatment around the world. 

That infusion up front, and the knowledge that those resources were flowing, of course has a great impact on production cycles. Lead time is something that has often been missing in the past, and so knowing that those resources are coming in, I think, has made a big difference.

The funding has had a tremendous impact, as Cathy has attested. USAID’s contribution helped treat nearly two-thirds of wasting cases across fifteen particular hotspot countries. And our support, I gather, helped UNICEF reach 5.5 million children, in hotspot countries, with lifesaving treatment. That’s a nearly 40 percent increase from the number of children reached in 2021. But as Andrew indicated at the outset, the fact that the needs are growing greater makes this a good news, bad news story.

A growing slate of emergencies threatens to reverse that progress. I was just, about ten days ago, at the border between Chad and Sudan – and you just see Sudanese mothers crossing on foot, talking to some of them who would walk for miles with no food or clean water. Met one mother who had carried her baby, who had a very bad fever, in her arms for 22 days. And again, the medical treatment for mothers like those who come across the border, nevermind questions about nutrition, food is still very much up in the air as that infrastructure gets established.

Even before these two military men began to tear each other and the country apart, Sudan already had one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, and UNICEF now estimates that the conflict has disrupted access to wasting treatment for at least 50,000 kids. Those are kids who relied on that treatment beforehand and we know that the conflict is also just driving up hunger, malnutrition, and surely wasting as well, so more resources will be needed. 

Humanitarian funding is a huge part of the equation. But we also know, globally, that three out of every four children suffering from severe wasting live in non-emergency contexts – places that often don’t receive humanitarian funding. Separately, many partner governments, such as that in Kenya, we really commend for investing significant domestic resources in wasting treatment, but we know as well that even fully funded treatment efforts can’t reverse the damage that just one wasting episode can wreak on a child’s growth and development.

So, we must keep up our efforts to help children dying in humanitarian emergencies – and make that funding more sustainable. But I’m also looking forward to discussing ways to build a more sustainable strategy to address child wasting head-on. One that will energize humanitarian donors in moments of crisis, as happened I think over the last year, but also empower partner governments over the long term. A strategy that will focus both on treating wasting, and obviously, what we all want to work toward, which is working to prevent wasting in the first place.

And this leads me to emphasize the importance of expanding and improving primary health care. This is a major area of emphasis for us now at USAID. Proper nutrition, of course, starts in the womb, and UNICEF’s data shows that 88 percent of pregnant women seek out at least one antenatal appointment. Nearly two-thirds attend four. Across Africa, Asia, and South America, primary health workers often perform a newborn’s first postnatal checkups. 

USAID’s efforts training health workers in northern Ghana, shows how effective primary care workers can be at addressing underlying risk factors for wasting. The nutritional support they gave pregnant and lactating mothers helped newborns enter the world at a healthy weight. And their training in nutrition helps parents identify locally available, nutritious ingredients to feed their young children. In just two years, these workers reached more than 68,000 pregnant women with critical nutrition support – and that is along with more than 185,000 children. 

Yet the WHO reports that 55 countries face dangerously low shortages of health care workers – a number that has spiked in the wake of the pandemic. Countries around the world have actually displayed an extraordinary willingness to invest in their primary health care systems – indeed, now, putting more money into primary health in other parts of the system than they had done in the past. But many are making this political commitment while resources are massively strained, and while so many of our partners are gripped by severe, in many cases unprecedented debt distress. So we need sustained, regular, intentional investment from donors around the world to help countries hire and retain primary care workers – and right now it’s really worth stressing that many of these workers are often underpaid or in some cases not paid at all. They do some of this work voluntarily. So we also must press to empower these workers with the nutrition training that helps them prevent wasting, and detect and treat it in the earliest stages.

Primary health care is only part of the puzzle. It doesn’t matter if a mom knows how to breastfeed her baby if she’s not nourished enough to adequately nurse that baby. It doesn’t  matter if she knows which foods her toddlers need to grow if she’s struggling to feed them anything at all. Without long-term efforts to curb the global food and nutrition crisis, previously treated children could return to poor diets and high risks of infections, where they could easily become malnourished once again.

Through Feed the Future, USAID is working to help countries build a resilient, hunger-free future. From Nepal to Nigeria, Ghana to Guatemala, we’re helping smallholder farmers, especially women, access the techniques and technologies they need to grow more food to feed their communities and lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.  We’re investing tens of millions of dollars as well, in food fortification – something many on this call have advocated for for a long time – helping food processors infuse available staple foods with essential vitamins and minerals, so that they remain affordable for low-income families.

But here, too, it would be so important if others would join in helping partner governments scale food fortification processes and develop innovations that will help the poorest farmers increase their yields. And we need those investments, too, to be ongoing and consistent – because the most sustainable possible solution to ending child wasting is getting communities the tools they need to lift themselves out of hunger.

Last year, at the UN General Assembly, I consider it to have been a life privilege of mine to have had the chance to co-host the pledge event where donors helped us exceed our funding goal for wasting detection and treatment. We really managed to save many many lives together. There was so much energy in that room – Cathy you can attest. And today, as we move into a discussion about sustainable funding for those goals, it would be fantastic if we could harness that same energy to create a sustainable strategy – one that ultimately empowers countries to prevent child wasting altogether.

Thank you so much. And now pass it over to my friend and colleague Minister Mitchell. 

Maternal and Child Health News Nutrition News
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