I recently returned from Bangladesh where I lead a group of Canadian supporters as we visited maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition programs. The trip once again demonstrated to me how sustainable change requires the engagement of donor and local government, communities, and civil society.
Today is World Food Day. Every child has a right to food. In Bangladesh, the visiting Canadian team (chef Roger Mooking of Food Network's, Everyday Exotic, PhD In Parenting blogger, Annie Urban, and Save the Children youth board member, Orysia Andryo, and myself) witnessed how Save the Children is working to ensure that right is fulfilled.
The programs we first visited were in the rural region around Sylhet, approximately 1.5 hours from the capital of Dhaka. Sylhet is famous for their tea plantations, and the hour long drive to the clinic gave us an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the countryside. Like rural life in most countries, the beauty sometimes masks the hardness of such a life: the limited access to services, the hard work required to make a living from the land and water.
When we arrived at the clinic, our partner staff from the MaMoni Project, and the government health workers who work at the clinic, explained that until Save the Children rehabilitated the clinic, there were no health services in easy distance for women in labour, young moms or their children. Along with our partners and the government we are working together on this project to demonstrate both the need for, and sustainability of, such a clinic with the idea to replicate the model in other rural areas of Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi government has demonstrated strong political will to increase the health of women and children. As a result, more children are surviving and they are on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal 4 (a two-thirds reduction of preventable child death) by 2015 despite being one of the world's poorest countries.
When we visited the clinic, and later the Community Action Groups, I was impressed by the community volunteers -- mostly women -- who are front line health promoters and vibrant leaders in their communities. Public health education is vital if we are to dramatically reduce maternal and child mortality, and volunteer community health promoters are key to making it work.
In this case, the volunteers were promoting healthy nutrition practices including breastfeeding (exclusive for six months) and complimentary feeding (from the family table in addition to breast milk at least until two years). They also were teaching men and women from the communities how to recognize early signs of illness in infants as well as warning symptoms of problems with the pregnant mother.
The Community Action Groups were lively with discussion, and many of the women I spoke to at the clinic indicated that it was because of the help of the community health promoter that they decided to seek treatment for themselves or their children. The volunteers had the trust of the mothers: their hearts and minds.
These health workers are not unique to Bangladesh but are a constant in the efforts of Save the Children and like-minded organizations. Regardless of language or culture, the universal characteristic that unites them all is the sparkle in their eyes as they hold the knowledge that they save children's lives. They are everyday heroes in the pursuit of healthy families; they are the motors of community development; they are the effective partners for Canadian and international aid in the south.
Just before leaving for Bangladesh the announcement came that preventable child mortality had once again dropped. Last year the annual figure was 7.1 million and it is now 6.9 million. Half as many children are dying from preventable causes every year than in 1990. This is very good news but clearly one preventable child death should be too much. We still have much work to do.
Globally, more funds have to be secured. With only an additional $10 billion per year one million children could be saved from preventable death caused by malnutrition. Continued investments in basic health care for the most vulnerable will save even more.
This year has been a critical one for action on nutrition, with global leaders reaffirming their commitment to tackling malnutrition at the G8 and the London Hunger Summit. While we visited Bangladesh, world leaders gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly, as well as for the high level Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) meeting.
The SUN movement has support from more than 20 countries, including Canada. Over 100 agencies and organizations have endorsed the SUN framework that sets out the movement's approach that food and nutrition security is a human right. CIDA Minister Julian Fantino attended both meetings.
Canada has demonstrated its political will by reaffirming its commitment to maternal, newborn and child health, signing UNICEF's A Promised Renewed. Minister Fantino hosted an important side event during the SUN meetings, and it was announced that Canada will sit on the Leadership Council for the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, President Obama's initiative from the 2012 G8. All of which is good news.
A lesson can be learned from Bangladesh: we need 360° accountability. As much as governments must be accountable to one another, donor to recipient and vice versa, the greatest accountability should be from governments and aid organizations like Save the Children and our partners to the poor mothers and children we seek to help.
My trip to Bangladesh reinforced for me that sustainable change is only possible when communities are active participants in that change. I come home more determined than ever to amplify their voices so that those incredible women I met in Bangladesh have the support they need to change the world.