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Kristalina Georgieva

European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

Opening address

Conference "Combating Malnutrition through Sustainable Interventions: EU-ASEAN relations as a key driver"

Brussels, 8 November 2011

Your Excellencies,

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to open this conference on malnutrition, a topic at the heart of our humanitarian and development work in the European Union, and a topic which has both policy and operational significance in our cooperation with the ASEAN.

In my role as Commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response, relations with the ASEAN are very important. It is no coincidence that I have been twice this year to South-East Asia, to demonstrate the EU's genuine interest in boosting cooperation with the ASEAN secretariat by paying a first visit to Dr Surin Pitsuwan.

On the one hand, five countries in South-East Asia have significant proportion of chronically malnourished children under five years of age. On the other hand, South-East Asia counts the two biggest rice exporters in the world – Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the two biggest exporters of palm oil – Indonesia and Malaysia, who are very interested stakeholders in the debate on “food security vs. fuel”.

Unfortunately, since 2008 the number of people hit by food insecurity is again on the increase, with close to 1 billion people going to bed hungry today. They pay the highest toll of the rising food prices: the World Bank food index has shown an increase of 19% for the last 12 months!

In addition to competition for land from industry and fuel, this is due to

  • population growth – on 31st October, we welcomed our 7th billion human being on earth;

  • increase in oil prices;

  • a growing middle class demanding more meat and milk products. From four to ten kilograms of cereals are needed to produce a kilogram of meat; four kilograms are needed to produce a litre of milk. Of course, this has direct impact on food prices;

  • the impact of climate change. Extreme weather leaves a serious mark on food security and can lead to disastrous consequences, as we are seeing with the drought in the Horn of Africa.

It is the most vulnerable who suffer the worst from the effect of these trends: children, pregnant women, the elderly. They don't take part in sophisticated discussions on what causes food and nutrition problems. They, who strive day after day just to survive, need solutions. Yet, for specialists, to provide solutions it is necessary to identify clearly the different food challenges, ranging from malnutrition, under-nutrition to acute malnutrition and famine.

The direst situation is a famine. How can we, in the XXI century, live in a world of plenty and fail to bring food to everyone?

Images from the Horn of Africa tell us how to recognise when children do not receive enough calories, when they are stunted (low height for their age) or underweight (low weight for their age). These images tell us when malnutrition is acute and when it is chronic. Every year, the lack of food causes the death of more than three million children.

Yet, there is another form of under-nutrition, which consists of deficiencies of essential micronutrients –iron, iodine, zinc and vitamin A. This is also referred to as “hidden hunger” because this lack of vitamins does not show any clinical signs. In the absence of blood tests, it remains undetected until the damage becomes irreversible. This deficiency cripples the immune system, making children much more susceptible to disease. It increases the risk of anaemia and women dying during pregnancy and childbirth. It prevents proper brain development, causing people to be less useful to themselves and their families and to contribute much less to economic growth.

This shows how the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and nutrition are interdependent: improved nutrition contributes to achieving the MDGs; and achieving the MDGs underpins an effective response to under-nutrition.

Adequate nutrition is required to achieve MDG 1 (poverty and hunger), 4 (child mortality) and 5 (women mortality). However, one should not forget that under-nutrition also impedes the attainment of three other goals:

  • MDG 2 on education: under-nourished children are less likely to enrol in school, more likely to enrol later and more likely to drop out of school at an earlier age;

  • MDG 3 on women's empowerment: under-nourished girls are less likely to stay in school and therefore have diminished chances to control future life choices;

  • MDG 6 on fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria: under-nutrition reduces malaria and tuberculosis survival rates and weakens resistance to infections, under-nutrition hastens the onset of AIDS among HIV positive persons.

So improved nutrition is key to achieving six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. If we manage to achieve these goals, we will have prevented millions of deaths.

To this end, we endorse the World Health Organisation's conclusion that under-nutrition is the most important single threat to the world's public health. When realising that knock-on economic costs of under-nutrition are estimated at 10% of individuals’ lifetime earnings, improving nutrition is widely regarded as the most effective form of aid as under-nutrition is both a consequence and a cause of poverty. This is why our policies are aimed at breaking this vicious circle.

The European approach

I am aware of the numerous reports, including the preliminary results of the "Elite Poll" prepared for this conference, reflecting a broad consensus that nutrition should rank higher in EU development policies.

Let me assure you that we are mainstreaming nutrition both in policies and in our operations.

On the policy front, we released last year a Communication on humanitarian food assistance, putting emphasis on resilience and efficiency by shifting from agricultural surpluses to whatever is the most appropriate in the given situation. Sometimes, it is better to give cash than grain to people, so that we can feed the hungry without killing the local farmers who could not compete with food bags from abroad. We apply this new approach in our negotiations for a new Food Assistance Convention – our goal is to make sure that the biggest providers of food assistance in the world pay attention to nutrition as well.

The EU has also just released a Reference Document on “Addressing Under-nutrition in External Assistance". This is our call to join up action in analysis, response and actions with the governments.

Also, in line with the "Elite Poll", we take sustainability as a significant element to empower partner countries which have made nutrition a priority in their development policies. This translates into our engagement with the SUN (a UN led process to support countries Scaling Up efforts to tackle under-Nutrition across a range of sectors) and with The 1,000 Days initiative (which promotes targeted action and investment to improve nutrition for mothers and children in the 1,000 days from pregnancy to age two).

We also speak with a strong voice in the UN system, in the World Bank and regional development banks, not only for food assistance, but also to foster support to agriculture and rural development as a way to increase food security and access to nutritious food.

In operational terms, in 2010, our support to nutrition stood at 543 million EUR (126 million from the Commission's humanitarian budget out of 392 million for food assistance activities, and 417 million through the Commission's development portfolio). Calculating that the total budget for development, humanitarian aid and external policies is about 12 billion, it means that the European Commission devotes 4.5% of its aid funds to projects with a clear nutrition objective.

Nutrition as a horizontal theme translates into concrete requirements for our operations such as:

  • providing appropriate food with sufficient and balanced nutrients;

  • promoting breastfeeding;

  • measuring the impact of food assistance through the growth of children; we do not only track what we give, but also the results we get.

  • plan a peak in nutrition before the spread of seasonal epidemics such as malaria.

In this regard, the EU is cooperating concretely with ASEAN countries through:

  • a EUR 20 million partnership with UNICEF on Maternal and Young Child Nutrition Security in Asia, which includes Indonesia, Philippines, Laos;

  • a EUR 36 million health programme in the Philippines which promotes maternal and child health and nutrition services;

  • participation in a EUR 73 million Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT) in Myanmar.

But public policy and funding are not sufficient to tackle hunger.

In our changing world, we need to involve not only states, but also:

  • Citizens who are more empowered than ever as agents of change thanks to the spread of technology, be it in agriculture, nutrition, or even communication technology that allows organisations to distribute cash for food through mobile phones;

  • NGOs that have become a social and political force around the world;

  • The global media with their "breaking news" effect, whose immediacy and emotional shock waves influence the conduct of diplomacy and politics.

  • And last, but certainly not least, the private sector. It is very encouraging that Corporate Social Responsibility has become an integral part of the business culture of some global companies. The Commission has therefore just released its 2011-2014 strategy on integrating social, environmental, ethical and human rights concerns into business operations.

  • I strongly welcome the increasing role played by the private sector in humanitarian relief. I see the great value of private sector engagement in efficiency, innovation and for filling competency gaps found in the humanitarian sector. For this to produce the best results, it must be done with full respect for neutrality, impartiality and independence, which are so critical for helping people in crises. It has also to be done as a part of a coordinated process, to make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Let me conclude by restating the commitment of the EU citizens to Humanitarian Aid. Even in harsh economic times, there is strong EU support (80%) for helping those in need. For the Horn of Africa, the EU (Commission and Member States) have provided more than 700 million EUR, which is by far the biggest contribution. In its proposal for the next multi-annual budget, the Commission foresees an increase by 26% for humanitarian aid. Because a world that fails to eradicate hunger is not a good world for our future generations.

Thank you.

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