Malawi pays high price for child hunger

Lilongwe (Malawi) (AFP) - Child malnutrition costs Malawi about $600 million a year, with more than half of children aged between 18 and 23 months suffering from stunted growth, according to a new report released on Wednesday.

The study revealed that 82,000 child deaths between 2008 and 2012 were "directly associated" with lack of food, while 60 percent of the working population suffered from stunted growth before they had reached the age of five.

The African Union and World Food Programme (WFP) report highlighted widespread child malnutrition in Malawi and its dire economic impact, with an estimated 10 percent of gross national product (GDP) lost each year.

Stunted growth "robs the child's potential of growth in so many ways and it is clear Malawi has much work to do to eliminate stunting," WFP representative Coco Ushiyama told reporters at the study's launch.

"The terrible news is that stunting is irreversible. The good news is it can be prevented.

"(But) the most vulnerable still have difficulty in meeting their annual food needs."

The "Cost of Hunger in Africa" study, which used the latest data from 2012, also said malnutrition resulted in high health costs and damaged children's ability to learn.

It called on the government to take "action for a drastic reduction of stunting in the next 10 to 15 years" by decentralising how funds are given out, and better coordination and monitoring.

The WFP oversees a programme in Malawi for providing 840,000 children with porridge at school.

Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe, who attended the study's launch, told AFP that the number of malnourished children in Malawi was "a scandal".

"We could have done better and done something about it as this has been a problem for many years," he said, vowing more funds and effective government action.

Felix Pensulo Phiri, director at Malawi's Department of Nutrition, told AFP that far more money was needed from the government.

Landlocked Malawi is one of the world's most densely populated and least developed countries, with 80 percent of the population living in rural areas and the economy largely dependent on agriculture.

Life expectancy is 60 years, and more than half the population live below the poverty line.