Friday, August 28, 2009

Malnutrition in Guatemala


"IT IS hardly one of Latin America’s poorest countries, but according to Unicef almost half of Guatemala’s children are chronically malnourished—the sixth-worst performance in the world. In parts of rural Guatemala, where the population is overwhelmingly of Mayan descent, the incidence of child malnutrition reaches 80%. A diet of little more than tortillas does permanent damage.
This chronic problem has become acute. Higher world prices for food have coincided with a recession-induced fall in money sent back from Guatemalans working in the United States (remittances equal 12% of Guatemala’s GDP). Drought in eastern Guatemala has made things worse still. Many families can scarcely afford beans, an important source of protein, and must sell eggs from their hens rather than feed them to their children.
The government and aid donors are providing emergency food supplies for 300,000 people scattered in some 700 villages. Up to 400,000 more may need help. In Jocotán, in the east, rehabilitation centres have admitted dozens of children who are so malnourished that their black hair has turned blond, their faces are chubby from fluid build-up as their organs fail, the veins in their legs become a visible black spider-web and their face muscles are too weak to smile.
What makes this even more distressing is that Guatemala is rich enough to prevent it. Other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Peru and Brazil, have reduced child hunger. Yet according to Unicef, the incidence of stunting—a common indicator of chronic malnutrition—in Guatemala is twice what it is in Haiti, where income per head is only a quarter as high. Stunting is not genetic: a study by the World Bank found that Mayans in southern Mexico are taller than those over the border.
That points to a failure of government in Guatemala. The Mayan population were the main victims of a long-running civil war between military dictatorships and left-wing guerrillas. Although democracy came, and eventually peace, social conditions have been slow to improve. Income inequality remains extreme, even by Latin American standards. Two-thirds of the rural population remains poor. Guatemala came second to bottom of a new index measuring inequality of opportunity in Latin America published by the World Bank last year. Whereas Guatemala City has shiny shopping malls, gated mansions and trendy restaurants, many indigenous Guatemalans scratch an inadequate living as sharecropping subsistence farmers. “These people were totally abandoned in the mountains with no infrastructure, no education, no health,” says Rafael Espada, the vice-president.
Much research shows that children who are undernourished tend to suffer from learning difficulties and end up poorer. So proper feeding is the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty. But schooling is vital too. Guatemala lags behind in educating girls in particular. As a result, mothers may not prepare corn-soya feeding supplements correctly, and may share them among all their children rather than favouring the malnourished.
The government fails to collect enough taxes from wealthier Guatemalans to provide good schools and health care for the majority, let alone the kind of targeted cash-transfer programme that has helped to cut poverty in Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in the region. But urban Guatemalans are more worried about rampant crime, much of it by drug gangs. The government, like its predecessor, is full of good intentions. But several attempts at tax reform over the past decade have foundered in the face of entrenched political resistance. So malnutrition looks set to continue in a country in which it ought to be a cause of national shame."

Sadly, this isn't new news, but I am happy to see it in the press (I am not a fan of the press, but am thankful that this brings much needed attention to this issue). I am disgusted by the fact that UNICEF all of a sudden seems so concerned about the children of Guatemala, but that is a topic for another day (if you do not already know why I do not support UNICEF, feel free to contact me). This article is all over Facebook and several people have already emailed to me. People are seeing it and that is a start. Obviously, Guatemala is nothing like many countries in Africa. Food is readily available. You will not likely come across children that are basically skeletons starving to death on the side of the road (possible, but not common). And chances are, many of the children you come across will not even appear to be malnourished, though they are obviously hungry. It took a while for me to grasp the concept of malnutrition in Guatemala because it is so different than what you see on TV commercials of children in Africa and beyond. But then I returned to Guatemala and watched a group of children eat. It was obvious that some of them had not eaten in days. Then it was confirmed for us that if the children do eat on a daily basis their meal consists of only tortillas, salt and an occasional serving of beans. Eating daily (or a few times a week) does not prevent malnutrition and THAT is the problem so many Guatemalans are facing.

How are we supposed to change this? What can we do to at least try to help this country save the lives of it's children? It starts with one family, one village, one orphanage. It is establishing feeding and vitamin programs that are continuous (even if they are formed slowly). It is educating mothers on how to properly give their children supplements and helping fathers (and mothers if possible) find and maintain employment. It is making sure that every child is able to attend school. It is water filtration and stove projects. It is projects that promote family self-sufficiency and community stability. It is committing to one area (or even just one family...whatever can be reasonably handled) and staying by their sides, doing everything possible to help them help themselves and filling in for them when they can't. It is praying for them and with them, knowing that the God that loves you also loves them and through you and others that He has called to walk with them, He will provide. You do not have to spend your life working in Guatemala or start an organization that works there. You do not even have to spend a large amount of money in financial donations and supplies. Malnutrition across the world is overwhelming, but your small contribution, no matter what it is, can end a child's suffering. Think about it. Tonight when you sit down with your family for dinner, remember these children that are not. As your children leave the table with full bellies, remember the children that may have only eaten a tortilla today. Ask yourself....are you doing all you can to help? If not, there are many ways to be involved. Through AAB, you can purchase food baskets for families or donate vitamins among other things. There are organizations working in countries around the world that we would happily recommend you support. Whether it is through AAB or another organization, we urge you to do something because something truly is better than nothing.

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