Afghanistan is raising a stunted generation, whose hobbled development could spell disaster for the country’s feeble economy and undermine the impact of billions of dollars in aid poured into health, education and other areas.
More than half of Afghan boys and girls suffer damage to their minds and bodies that cannot be undone because they are poorly fed in the crucial first two years of life, doctors and experts have said. The revelation raises serious questions about the legacy of more than 10 years of Western involvement in Afghanistan.
“After the age of two years, stunting is largely irreversible and has an impact on growth and development and cognitive function,” World Food Program health and nutrition director Carrie Morrison said.
“Over the longer term, it can have a very damaging effect on the national economy. Young people are not able to attain what they should be able to attain. Women who marry young and are stunted themselves give birth to a small infant and the cycle goes on,” she said.
The problem of children who are not getting enough nutrients from their food is known as chronic malnutrition. It afflicts poorer countries worldwide, but in Afghanistan, it is particularly widespread and persistent.
A decade after the fall of the Taliban, 55 percent of the country’s children are stunted because of inadequate food, Afghan government and UN data show.
The statistic is damning for Western powers, which have poured billions into Afghanistan to fund development and reconstruction.
The US alone has spent US$90 billion. Such funding aimed to transform Afghanistan from an impoverished, unstable country of largely subsistence farmers into a more modern nation, but return on that spending has been low.
With troops soon to head home, the returns have been limited. Violence is spreading and Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with low life expectancy and poor healthcare for mothers and young children.
The malnutrition problem is caused by the basic poverty of those who cannot afford healthy food, as well as poor hygiene and healthcare, child marriage and a web of other issues.
“We have whole families where food insecurity means they are all malnourished, but we [also] even have rich families that have one child who is sick,” says Alam Mohammad, a 25-year-old doctor who swapped the chance of an easy city practice to work in Feroz Nakhchair, on the grueling frontline of a fight for the country’s future.
Half an hour’s drive down a dirt track from the nearest country road, in a valley on the fringes of Taliban territory, he sees dozens of cases a day like Mojabeen, whose leopard-print dress beneath her burqa seems incongruous with her life of constant hardship. At 19, she has three children and the family live in a one-room house on a flood plain that is periodically inundated.
Her husband earns US$2 or US$3 a day, if he can find work, which is not enough to feed the small family.
“My second child is living with my mother, as we can’t provide for him,” says Mojabeen, as she waits for her baby to be weighed and examined.
Her children were at a disadvantage even before they were born because Mojabeen was so starved of nutrients that she could not pass on what they needed during pregnancy. In a district of about 13,000 people, the problem is so widespread that a program set up for about 100 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers is already serving more than four times that number.