Sunday, February 17, 2013

Nick Clegg in Africa - a missed opportunity?

Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone went to Africa this week. Shortly after he picked up every banana skin left for him at Deputy Prime Minister's Questions by Labour and the incomparable Peter Bone, and lobbed them back with vigour, he took a flight to Mozambique and Ethiopia.

He was there to highlight the Girls' Education Challenge Fund set up by the Department of International Development. Its aim is to give a million of the world's poorest girls the chance to improve their life chances by giving them access to education. Nick said that this would help them escape HIV, domestic violence and poverty.

African women should be driving  economic growth, not be driven into poverty and dependency. From what I have seen today, I’m convinced that giving girls a good education is the single most effective thing we can do to break the cycle of poverty.
Africa’s recent economic success – growth rates from five to seven per cent – owes much to its women. Sustaining and increasing the pace of growth will depend on them too.
Projects such as this one are getting girls into good quality education and are vital to help African women escape poverty, disease and domestic violence. The girls I have met here are enthusiastic, committed and dedicated to learning. They are clearly the key to unlocking Africa’s potential.
He is absolutely right and this is exactly what we should be doing. His Letter from the Leader told us more about his visit to Africa:

In meetings with leaders from both countries I particularly highlighted the need for global action on tax avoidance and evasion. Developing countries have suffered from this for years but the developed world is now waking up too. Big companies can move quicker and easier than national tax laws and they end up playing us off against each other. Only by working together - developed and developing nations - can we make sure that tax is properly collected and spent on the public services we all need, whatever country we live in.
I also took a business delegation with me because the opportunity for British businesses in Africa are enormous. Seven out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are on the continent and it's part of the job as a Government Minister to make sure they are getting the best access to these booming emerging markets.
I think there's one huge issue he's missing out, though. And it has to do with reining in corporate greed and improving the health of kids. If kids are going to benefit from education, we need to get them through the perilous first five years of life. A Save the Children report last year highlighted the importance of breastfeeding, amongst other things, in that.

There are lots of interventions Governments can make  to support breastfeeding. Some of them are very simple - like making sure babies are put to the breast and encouraged to feed within an hour of birth. Others are much more complex - getting the formula companies to behave. Nestle,and others, for example, is threatening the Government of the Philippines with withdrawal of investment if it does not reduce its regulations on the marketing of infant formula according to Baby Milk Action.

Friday's Guardian carried a horrific report by Zoe Williams on how the antics of the formula companies put babies in danger. Heavens above, a wee bit of horsemeat in our food, which won't harm us, and we all go mad. That's nothing compared to what's happening in Indonesia and elsewhere. The article highlights 20 year old Fifi who was given a sample of formula for her daughter by her midwife of all people.Now she has to spend half her husband's income on formula, but that's not the worst of it:

But at Fifi's home, it became obvious that the sanitation problem towers over this one – 45% of Indonesians have no access to clean water. There are only two places in the capital where anyone can drink from a tap, and that's the American embassy and Jakarta international school. But Fifi can't afford gas to boil water either. She has no kitchen. She has to pay every time she goes to the loo, which is shared between 26 people, and sometimes she cuts a deal with a neighbour where one of them goes to the loo while another has a shower, to save money.
Clean hands, clean utensils, clean bottles, clean anything, it's all a total pipe dream. A paediatrician in a separate Jakartan clinic, Dr Asti Praborini, said: "Selling formula is like the killing fields, in my opinion. The babies will die of diarrhoea and they will die of malnutrition.
The report highlights how formula companies work with midwives to get them to sell their products, flouting the law in the process.It is time that Governments did something about this.Otherwise babies will continue to die unnecessarily of diahorrea and malnutrition. I'd really like to see Nick Clegg and Lynne Featherstone get some international action going on this.

The countries they visited last week are classified "good" on Save the Children's scale. They still have room for improvement, though. Countries like Malawi and the Solomon Islands where they are putting a lot of effort into encouraging breastfeeding are seeing child mortality rates fall. Obviously.

And it'snot just in the poorer parts of the world where improving breastfeeding rates  makes a difference. You might be interested in this post I wrote last year telling Nick Clegg how action now could both save money and tackle inequality in health, quoting current research which says clearly that:
Breast fed children from lower socio-economic groups had better outcomes than formula fed children from more affluent families.
 It's time to take this issue seriously by making it easier for mothers to breastfeed and clamping down on formula companies both at home and abroad.

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