By Charlotte Halligan
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Look at Meena from a distance and you will see a normal, healthy Lao girl. She is of average height for a 7-year-old girl. But look a little closer and you will notice that her arms and legs, poking out through her oversized second-hand clothes, are painfully thin. Her hair lacks a healthy shine. Her eyes look tired and weary.
Meena struggles to concentrate, especially at school. Up close, the effects of malnutrition are all too apparent, especially when you realize that Meena is actually 12 years old. She is far too short for her age.
Malnutrition means different things to different people. For many children in Laos, it conveys a feeling of gnawing hunger in the pit of their stomachs. It means going to school without breakfast, unsure of whether they will have something to eat for lunch.
It means depending on rice and what little food they can scavenge, including insects like crickets and grasshoppers. It means suffering from stunted growth, ill health, increased susceptibility to disease, and poor concentration. It means never meeting their full potential.
For a small but significant percentage of children, malnutrition means not living to see their fifth birthday. (Laos has the 23rd highest infant mortality rate in the world — 77 children in every 1,000 die before their fifth birthday.) Underweight births, lack of breast feeding due to maternal malnourishment, and deficiencies in essential vitamins, iron, and iodine can all cause infant deaths.
Iodine deficiency in children can also cause mental impairment. Evidence suggests that the lack of iodine can shave 10 to 15 points off of people’s IQ scores. It is the single biggest cause of avoidable mental impairment in the world.
The best form of aid
The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported in 2009 that, despite a decade of economic growth, chronic malnutrition in children remains a huge problem in Laos and will continue to cause social and economic problems.
Aside from the immediate and often devastating consequences, malnourished children rarely meet their full mental and physical potential as adults, resulting in a productivity loss that has serious repercussions for economic development.
According to FAO research, loss of productivity caused by malnutrition will cost the Lao government an estimated $166 million between 2005 and 2010.
The problem is self-perpetuating. Malnourished children and adults are less able to perform the tasks needed to increase productivity, such as gaining proper education, acquiring sustainable food sources, and generating an income.
Only 4 percent of the land in Laos is arable. The rest of the country is too mountainous, which means that they can’t successfully grow crops. What little land there is for farming is subject to flooding, droughts, pests, and poor irrigation. Disease and land shortages mean that livestock rearing is expensive and difficult.
Many farmers lack the technical skills or financial capital needed to improve agricultural techniques. They cannot produce sufficient crop yields to feed their families or to sell at local markets.
In very poor households, families depend on foraging for wild food resources such as fish and aquatic animals, insects, fruits, and vegetables. However, foraging is an unsustainable way to increase nutrient intake, and it destroys the unique biodiversity in nationally protected areas.
A battle fought on many fronts
Malnutrition is the primary focus for The Social and Economic Developers Association (SEDA), an organization dedicated to improving the socioeconomic situation in Laos.
Short-term goals of SEDA focus on relieving childhood malnutrition in Laos’ poorest regions in the south. Using donated money, their aim is to provide each child of school age with at least one nutritious meal and one snack a day. A $60 donation can provide nutrition for a child for one month.
At the same time, SEDA is helping villagers to realize long-term solutions to poverty and lack of food. Through the innovative use of micro-credit, SEDA will provide farmers with seeds for cash crops that can be quickly grown and training in agriculture that will help increase crop yields.
SEDA will also assist with irrigation and teaching farmers about cutting edge organic farming techniques to address the problems of skill and financial shortages.
The projected increase in food production will help to reduce malnutrition, and surplus crops can be sold at local markets to generate a small income for farmers.
With financial assistance from international aid institutions, SEDA also plans to provide seedlings for long-term, high profit crops such as grapes, avocados, and cherries, which can be sold in urban areas to generate a more sustainable income.
Projects such as SEDA’s will have positive implications far into the future.
For Meena and her peers, it can bring hope for a better future — one not defined by poverty, hunger, or the struggle to survive. ♦
For more information, visit seda-laos.org.