Addis Ababa—Since 2000, Ethiopia has been doing something right in early childhood nutritional health. Under-five child stunting rates have dropped from 58 percent to 40 percent, child wasting has dropped below 10 percent, and the prevalence of underweight in young children has declined from 41 to 25 percent.
What lies behind these impressive gains? According to experts from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Transform Nutrition, possible drivers include improvements in infant and young child feeding practices, improved agricultural performance, advances in empowering women, stronger social safety nets, and better roads and infrastructure.
“The reasons are still unclear, but the Ethiopia of 2000 is a stark contrast to the Ethiopia of today,” said Derek Headey, a senior research fellow at IFPRI. “Much of the improvement stems from larger birth sizes and hence better maternal nutrition, but we’re still trying to figure out exactly what’s driving these changes.”
Headey and other IFPRI researchers, government officials, and top international and national experts in nutrition, food policy, agriculture, and social protection will discuss the possible reasons for Ethiopia’s major gains in child nutrition today at a one-day conference at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa.
On the agenda are discussions about the impact of cash transfer programs on nutritional indicators, how women’s empowerment in agriculture can affect nutritional outcomes, production diversity, and children’s diets, and how remoteness impacts welfare and nutrition, among other topics.
Government investment in road infrastructure has made it easier for farmers to get food to market and for food to travel to remote areas. In 1997, only 15 percent of the population was within three hours of a city of at least 50,000 people. In 2010, the percentage had increased to almost 50 percent.
“Better market access has led to lower poverty and better food security and more resilient food systems,” said Bart Minten, a senior research fellow with IFPRI.
John Hoddinott, the H.E. Babcock Professor of Nutrition and Economics, Cornell University and a co-research director for Transform Nutrition, who will present research on production diversity and children’s diets, points to the importance of linking interventions in nutrition to interventions in other sectors.
“Further sustained reductions in chronic undernutrition in Ethiopia will require tighter links between agriculture, social protection, and nutrition complemented by increased attention to improving women’s status and economic decision-making,” Hoddinott said.
Researchers said other African countries could benefit from emulating some of Ethiopia’s strategies for improved child nutrition. But first they need to understand the principles and processes that helped the country make such impressive strides.
“While there’s still a long way to go, these improvements indicate that something is working in Ethiopia,” Headey said.