MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is losing at least P328 billion ($7.06 billion)* a year due to the impact of childhood stunting on education and workforce productivity, according to a report released Tuesday, August 30.
Non-governmental organization Save the Children revealed in its latest Cost of Hunger in the Philippines report that childhood stunting cost the country almost 3% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013.
Below is the breakdown of the P328-billion economic loss:
P166.5 billion ($3.59 billion) - lost income due to lower educational achievement
P160 billion ($3.45 billion) - lost productivity due to premature mortality
P1.23 billion ($26.49 million) - education costs
Stunted growth – a sign of chronic malnutrition – could affect a child's cognitive development, overall health, and even socio-economic conditions that carry on to adulthood.
Ned Olney, country director of Save the Children Philippines, said data on the number of stunted children in the Philippines shows the country is "going in the wrong direction" in terms of child malnutrition. (READ: 12M of stunted children in ASEAN live in PH, Indonesia – report)
There are currently 3.8 million stunted children in the Philippines – an increase from the 3.2 million in 2013.
About a million of those children are severely stunted, according to Cecilia Acuin, chief science research specialist at the Food and Nutrition Research Institute-Department of Science and Technology.
With 33% childhood stunting nationwide, Olney said the Philippines is now ranked 9th in the world in terms of total number of stunted children.
"Over the past quarter century, there was a very slight improvement in malnutrition. [For the] last 10 years, [it was] fairly steady: not getting worse, not getting better. But the years 2013 to 2015 [saw the] largest increase in malnutrition in a quarter century," he added, calling the rise in malnutrition rates "unprecedented".
For instance, Olney said childhood stunting in Mindanao is at 40%, which is also the average for countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
"To know that we have African levels of childhood stunting in modern, developing, progressive Philippines is shocking. It's a problem," he told Rappler in a separate interview.
But what caused the increase in stunting rates? Olney said even health and development communities in the country are still debating over why it went up in the past two years.
"I think the easiest answer is that poverty rates also went up," he added.
Maristela Abenojar from the Department of Social Welfare and Development's (DSWD) Office of the Secretary agreed: "We believe malnutrition [rates] won't have substantial decrease if we don't address the root of the problem: poverty."
But Ella Naliponguit, director of the Department of Education's Health and Nutrition Center said information – both on the part of the mother and the community – could also be a factor aside from poverty.
What government should do
Save the Children urged a whole-of-government approach to address the "nutrition crisis" in the Philippines. First in its list of recommendations is the support for the First 1,000 Days Bill. At the Senate, this is Senate Bill 161 filed by Senator Grace Poe.
Supporting the bill, according to Save the Children, will enhance the delivery of quality nutrition intervention in the first 1,000 days of a child's life to prevent stunting.
Naliponguit agreed and pointed out that it would be too late if government starts its interventions at 5 years old, or when the child enters school.
But for Acuin, it's important for government not only to pass laws but also to implement programs related to nutrition.
Right now, Abenojar said DSWD is already in the process of reviewing the quality of the implementation of the government's Conditional Cash Transfer program, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps).
"Something has to be done in terms of advocating with the 4Ps [families] about nutrition, and that also of course includes the breastfeeding concern, and teenage pregnancy," she added.
Save the Children also urged the government to invest not only in nutrition programs, but also in water and sanitation, in reproductive health, in agriculture, and in jobs training.
Olney lamented the Philippines' "very low" investment in nutrition programs – only .52% of the total government budget, compared to the global average allocation of 2.1%.
"So it's really investment across a wide range of departments that can have an impact on nutrition. It needs to be planned, it needs to be thought out and targeted towards nutrition programs," he told Rappler.
The latest Save the Children report estimated that for every $1 spent on programs to avert childhood stunting, the Philippines could save over $100 in health, education, and lost productivity costs.