A report by a Britain-based charity says one-quarter of the world's children may underperform at school because of chronic malnutrition. Save the Children says tackling malnutrition should be a priority for G8 leaders meeting next month in Northern Ireland.
The report published on Tuesday
says a stunted eight-year-old is almost 20 percent more likely to find it hard to read basic sentences than someone of the same age who has a good diet.
David McNair, head of growth, equity and livelihoods at Save the Children UK, said, "Those who are malnourished have consistently scored lower on math tests and found it more difficult to read a simple sentence at age eight. And as they go through life that effects their confidence, career aspirations and ultimately their ability to earn money."
The report was based on an international study, Young Lives, which is led by a team from the University of Oxford. Thousands of children were involved in the research, which covered Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam.
It says the period from when a woman becomes pregnant until a child is two is a critical time for brain development. If the pregnant or breast-feeding woman and the infant don't have access to the right nutrients, both brain development and cognitive performance can be compromised.
McNair said the impact of malnutrition, however, goes beyond the biology of the brain.
"There is interesting evidence on the stimulus they receive. Because children who are malnourished look smaller, their parents and their caregivers tend to treat them as if they were younger than they are. And that means they do not get the right stimulus and their brains are not developing as a result of that stimulus," he said.
Tuesday's report says the impact of childhood malnutrition poses a major threat to the long-term economic growth of many developing countries.
U.N. figures suggest that last year nearly 50 percent of children under five in southern Asia and 40 percent of under-five in sub-Saharan Africa were stunted - too short for their age due to poor nutrition.
Save the Children predicts that malnourished children may, as adults, earn 20 percent less than their nourished peers, costing the global economy more than $100 billion a year.
Therefore, said McNair, targeting malnutrition now will have major long-term effects. But despite being one of the most cost-effective forms of development, nutrition programs get only slightly more than 0.3 percent of global development spending.
Early next month the British and Brazilian governments are hosting the first-ever nutrition pledging conference.
Save the Children wants spending on nutrition to more than double to $1 billion a year. And it aims to encourage middle-income countries to put nutrition at the top of their spending agenda.
"We want developing country governments also to make their own commitments. Because some of these countries where malnutrition is a major problem, countries like India and Nigeria, are actually middle-income countries and have resources themselves; they just need to invest in them in the right way," said McNair.
According to Save the Children, 10.9 million children under five in Nigeria are stunted. In India, the figure is 61.4 million.