In our capacity as the heads of two UN agencies in Uganda—UNICEF and World Food Programme—we have travelled extensively throughout the country and have observed first-hand the many challenges that contribute to Uganda’s high levels of undernutrition, especially among children.
For some children, nutritious foods are not available or accessible to their families. For others, a lack of access to essential health services and to clean water and adequate sanitation leads to illnesses that prevent children from absorbing nutrients. The prevalence of infectious diseases such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea can also exacerbate undernutrition, especially among children under five.
The effects of poor nutrition are widespread in Uganda. Despite ongoing investments by government and development partners, for instance, almost two million children in Uganda are still too short for their age—or “stunted.”
While the prevalence of stunting has reduced over the years, there is almost no change in the absolute numbers of stunted children in the country due to Uganda’s high population growth. Meanwhile, micronutrient deficiencies and anaemia affect millions of children in Uganda, while approximately 250,000 children are so severely malnourished that they require therapeutic feeding.
These afflictions are sobering and should terrify us, given the adverse effects of malnutrition on the growth and development of children. Unless these problems are addressed in a meaningful way, the children of Uganda—and the country as a whole—will struggle to reach their full potential.
The health sector is among the most important sectors in tackling these problems. However, many crucial determinants of child malnutrition—such as diet diversity—fall beyond the immediate mandate of the sector. That is why we need an “all-hands-on-deck” approach that includes agriculture, water and environment, education, and gender.
In Uganda, we applaud the government for its commitment to ending malnutrition among children, young people and women by employing an approach that involves all critical sectors. But the government cannot do it alone, which is why we are issuing an urgent joint appeal to the government, the private sector, donors, parents, families and businesses to continue that work by:
Allocating resources and mobilizing sectors to improve the coverage and quality of nutrition-related services for all children, as stated in the Uganda Nutrition Action Plan;
Empowering families, children and young people to purchase and consume nutritious foods with support through improved nutrition education;
Creating policies that incentivize food suppliers to provide healthy, convenient and affordable nutritious foods;
Building healthy food environments for children and adolescents by using proven approaches, such as accurate and easy-to-understand labelling;
And last, but not least, collecting, analyzing and using high-quality data and evidence to guide action and track progress at national, regional, and local levels.
While we are aware that many challenges exist, we know that together we have the power to make malnutrition a problem of the past. The solutions are not expensive, but they require strong government leadership. Let us work together to ensure that every child and family in Uganda has the nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable diets they need to meet their full potential.
Doreen Mulenga is Unicef representative, and Elkhidir Daloum is the country director World Food Program.