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Jakarta Post

RI children struggling with chronic malnutrition

  • Hans Nicholas Jong

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, April 25, 2015   /  10:26 am

Wawa, a two-and-a-half year old girl, looks happy in her smaller-than-average frame. She always smiles from ear to ear whenever her mother buys her porridge from a nearby street vendor or cooks her a local brand of instant noodles.

'€œThose are the foods that I usually give to my daughter,'€ Wawa'€™s mother Kus told The Jakarta Post on Thursday. '€œShe doesn'€™t like vegetables at all.'€

However, Kus, who hails from Lampung and now works as a domestic helper in Jakarta, said that she is not at all concerned that her daughter does not get enough nutrients crucial for her development.

'€œAs long as she is happy, then I am happy,'€ she said. Little does Kus know that her daughter is at risk of becoming stunted with such a diet, which is high in carbohydrates, but lacks other important nutrients.

It is not uncommon to hear stories like Wawa'€™s in Indonesia, a country with a malnutrition problem so bad that 37 percent of children under 5 are too short for their age, a condition known as stunting.

Many of these children will not do well at school because the same nutrients that are needed for growth are also needed for healthy brain development.

The 2014 Global Nutrition Report places Indonesia among 31 countries in the world that are unlikely to meet global targets for reducing malnutrition by 2025.

'€œBased on the report, it'€™s pretty clear that Indonesia should be doing better than it is from the numbers because it achieved a good GNP [gross national product] per capita, has a committed government, a highly educated workforce '€” at least in some parts of the country '€” and good agricultural production and, yet, its stunting rate is 37 percent,'€ Global Nutrition Report co-chair Lawrence Haddad recently told the Post.

But what is worrying is the fact that Indonesia had only managed to make slow gains in reducing the numbers of under-nourished children.

'€œThe number has been fairly flat for the last five or six years. So that'€™s really worrying. You can start in a high place, but if the number isn'€™t going down [then you'€™re in trouble],'€ Haddad said. '€œIt'€™s a puzzle. No one really understands why [the number is so bad].'€

It is believed that the mindset of people like Kus is the root cause of Indonesia'€™s malnutrition problem.

'€œIt'€™s all about behavior,'€ said Ravi K. Menon, the Indonesian country director for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). '€œHere, stunting doesn'€™t only affect poor families, but also rich ones. It happens because nobody understands how to properly feed [their children]. Since there has been a lot of propaganda on what we should feed them, we fall for it.'€

Therefore, it is crucial for the government to find creative ways to change the mindset of its people when it comes to nutrition, according to Rachel Nugent from the University of Washington'€™s School of Public Health.

'€œ[You could] put healthy foods first under a very nice light to make them attractive while moving less healthy foods to the back. Sometimes these things don'€™t cost too much,'€ she said.

While it might not be too costly to try to change people'€™s diets, attempts to reduce stunting alone in Indonesia would result in much greater benefits.

A study in 2013 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) calculated that efforts to reduce stunting alone in Indonesia would yield Rp 48 million (US$3,700) for every Rp 1 million invested.

A study by a think tank called the Copenhagen Consensus Center even estimated a more fantastic number, reporting that every dollar invested in better nutrition in Indonesia could yield benefits worth $166.

'€œFeeding people properly '€” and starting early '€” is not just a moral imperative. It also makes a lot of economic sense,'€ the think tank said in its 2015 book on the post-2015 development agenda, The Nobel Laureates'€™ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World.

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The 2014 Global Nutrition Report places Indonesia among 31 countries in the world that are unlikely to meet global targets for reducing malnutrition by 2025.

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