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Expert Comment: Poor diet kills 2.6 million infants a year

India_200_x_120 Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dr. Stefanie Kappler, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics, History Media and Communication at Liverpool Hope University

Not only has the recent report on hunger and malnutrition produced by Save the Children created public outrage, particularly on the part of international development NGOs and charities, but it seriously calls into question the legitimacy of our global development architecture. Why have financially strong institutions such as the World Bank not managed to overcome issues of child poverty? We tend to look at malnutrition and poverty as technical problems, issues that can be solved if we find the adequate tools of wealth redistribution.

But the matter goes beyond that. It is more political than we tend to assume as the question of child malnutrition casts light on a set of actors that have long been neglected in our thinking about peace and development. Maybe children are now key to understanding the complexities of failed institutional setups. They show how our focus on economic growth has come at the expense of a needs-oriented approach to development politics. Have we been sacrificing needs on behalf of progress?

The implications of this are far-reaching. The debate has focused on starvation, but at the same time, it reminds of children’s agency. In the view of poverty, the representation of children as powerless victims of failed institutional policies has stripped them of their agency to make a change to their own lives. Children have often been used to legitimise intervention on behalf of the need to save them from the evils of underdevelopment. In the light of poverty and malnutrition, this seems understandable, and perhaps necessary.

However, a focus on the political roles of children in many development contexts, their contributions to households and societies in turn shows us that, on the one hand, we need to focus on children’s basic needs as children are part of the social fabric of any society. On the other hand, this may suggest to move away from an exclusive focus on ‘saving the children’ towards an approach that empowers children to save themselves on their own terms. They will certainly need basic provision of food and shelter to move beyond their role as victims of underdevelopment, while at the same time, they need to be seen as capable of speaking on behalf of themselves.

Listening to children’s voices and taking them seriously seems to be the big challenge lying ahead in our debates about development and change.

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