September 10, 2019

Eradicating Malnutrition Will Take More Than Sacking Mayors

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One of the reasons given for the recent sacking and forced resignations of mayors and their deputies from 9 district last week is failure to solve or tackle the problem of malnutrition and stunting in children in their districts.

Mr. Frederic Mutangana, the District Council Chairperson of Karongi, for example, attributed the “resignation” of the district mayor and his two deputies to, failure to “fight against stunting in children, poverty reduction, housing, among others.”

Even the Minister of Local Government Prof Anastase Shyaka who is directly responsible for these mayors acknowledged as much on Twitter when he posited that, among other issues, it is: “…midway to the first phase of [the] National Strategy for Transformation (NST1) delivery in 2024. Every day counts! All districts are eager to have the most effective and conducive leadership to spur rapid local transformation and wellbeing of citizens”.

One of the key priorities in the 2017-2024 “National Strategy for Transformation and Prosperity” Prof Syaka is referencing here is fighting and eradicating malnutrition.

Even President Paul Kagame himself has, for the last three years been addressing this problem – calling on his officials to solve this cancer urgently.

Indeed, the problem of malnutrition and stunting in the country is endemic and unacceptably high.

According to the World Bank, malnutrition stood at a whopping 38% countrywide in 2018 while the National Institute of Statistics puts it at 35% in the same year.

In its 2018 report titled: “Tackling Stunting: Rwanda’s Unfinished Business”, the World Bank also says stunting is “widespread”, but especially severe among “the poorest” and “Those who live in rural areas.”

On its part, the 2018 National Institute of Statistics study titled: “Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis” states that although “Chronic malnutrition (stunting) for children [of] 6-59 months has dropped from 37 percent to 35 percent between 2015 and 2018… findings of the study reiterate that food access, food consumption, and chronic malnutrition remain issues that still need to be tackled hand-in-hand with poverty”.

Clearly, chronic malnutrition is a big problem that requires national attention and adequate resources.

And the reason addressing this issue is critical is because, as Mr. Yasser El-Gammal, the World Bank Country Manager for Rwanda said in the aforementioned report: “Stunting impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings” as “It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to attaining Rwanda’s aspiration to become a middle-income country and sustain its economic gains”.

In response, the government set 19% malnutrition target levels for all districts to have achieved by 2024.

However, the problem of chronic malnutrition cannot be solved by mayors alone, nor will their sacking solve the problem. The reason for this is because the problem is systemic, deep rooted and needs to be addressed at multiple levels and involving multiple actors, including parents, schools, churches, local and national leaders as well as development partners.

Fundamentally however, the problem should be tackled at the household and cell (village/umudugudu) levels. This is because while many attribute it to “lack of knowledge” or “care” by some parents, it’s largely a problem of poverty, and limited or lack of food at the household level.

Many families are dearly poor to afford even a proper meal a day. When one visits villages, it’s empirically observable even some grownups look stunted and evidently hungry and sickly; especially in the South, Central and East of the country.

Statistically, while official poverty stands at 39% nationally, which is about the same as levels of malnutrition (38%), the aforementioned National Institute of Statistics study put food insecurity households at 18.7% nationally and food secure at 81.3%; but adding that 38.6% of “these… (966,160 households) are considered marginally food secure, meaning that they are at high risk of becoming food insecure”.

In addition, the study tells us, “Food insecure households were [more] among the poorest (32 percent of households”. This is also the finding in the aforementioned World Bank Report.

Therefore, at The Chronicles, we believe solving the problem of malnutrition requires a medium term plan rather than quick fixes put on the shoulders of mayors to “urgently” solve.

In fact, government, in its numerous development plans recognizes this; including in its aforementioned 2017-2024 “National Strategy for Transformation and Prosperity” as well as the 2018-2024 “Health Strategic Plan”. The same is laid out in the “National Early Childhood Development Coordination Program”.

What’s needed to turn these policies and goals into household jobs, money, food, nutrition and knowledge to fight and eradicate malnutrition once and for all, is greater coordination and supervision from the national level down to the household; mayors can’t give you that in a short time.

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