As governments grapple with the challenge of improving learning outcomes, the answer may well lie outside the classroom.
Micronutrient (minerals and vitamins) deficiency is a major public health issue. It affects more than 3 billion people worldwide, and has serious consequences for fetal and indeed human capital development. Although rising incomes and standard food fortification with iodized salt and iron have benefited many people in Asia, the prevalence of anemia in pregnant women ranges from about 30% in the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines, to around 50% in India and Pakistan.
Numerous studies have analyzed the effects of deficiencies in essential micronutrients—such as zinc, vitamin B, iron, and iodine—on birth weight as well as cognitive and physical development. The research shows that zinc deficiency in particular is associated with impaired learning, reduced attention, and poor memory – all of which are linked to poor learning outcomes.
There are also well-established associations between micronutrient deficiency in impoverished households and impaired cognitive, behavioral, and physical ability. Longitudinal studies in Chile, Costa Rica, and Israel found that children who were anemic in the first 2 years of their life performed poorly in school.
Studies have also shown anemic children to be more wary, hesitant, unhappy, fearful, and tired. They don’t want to separate from their mothers and barely interact with their environment, so they become functionally isolated. This undermines their ability to interact and learn.
What is striking is that micronutrient deficiency is common even among middle-income households.
Even small quantities of critical micronutrients are a powerful and cost-effective lever for improving health and learning outcomes. The cost of iron fortification of flour has been estimated to be about $0.12 per person per year. This would make a significant contribution toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 3, and 4.
So, what can we do to ensure children get the micronutrients they need to grow their bodies and their minds at the right pace? Micronutrient programs clearly need more funding – the question is how and where to get the financing and scale up programs?
Eat well to become smart
Financing instruments such as grants can be used for standalone micronutrient programs like those designed by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Grants for micronutrients can also become part of blended finance for education sector loans that promote reforms in making micronutrient-fortified foods such as rice available to schoolchildren and adolescents.
Another way is to support efforts by some governments to lower or remove taxes on certain fortified foods to make them affordable to all.
If such programs were mainstreamed across ADB’s developing member countries, they would create demand at a scale that is attractive enough for private companies producing fortified products and using reliable quality control and distribution networks to reach consumers.
Since poor diets are increasingly evident in urban areas, where people are more exposed to technology, part of the financing should be allocated to social marketing campaigns, including via social media and mobile apps, to increase awareness and change behaviors toward consumption of nutritious food. In other words, encourage children to eat well to become smart.
Three wins emerge from this strategy. First, all children, regardless of their income status, will have access to essential nutrients for their growth.
Second, governments will use their budgetary resources more effectively by intervening at a critical juncture in cognitive development, and at a relatively low cost. This could also help boost the effectiveness of large and expensive investments in education such as school construction, teacher salaries and training, and early childhood learning materials.
Third, private sector firms also benefit, as they would have a clear incentive to develop new business models, adopt more efficient production techniques to reduce costs, and boost their market share among low-income clients. A great example is the Grameen-Danone partnership to produce fortified yoghurt for the poor in Bangladesh.
If we want to promote continual skills acquisition to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the answer to develop critical thinking, social skills, and healthy and productive people is in the mighty micronutrient.