I’ve just returned from visiting Save the Children programmes in India, where I saw that all eyes were fixed on London for the Olympics. When asked in a Delhi slum if the Queen and James Bond really had parachuted into the opening ceremony, I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to tell the children that they hadn’t , but it showed how the Games have shone a spotlight on the UK. As the Olympics close next week, David Cameron will host a summit of world leaders to try and address hunger and malnutrition. The convergence of global attention on London provides an opportunity to galvanise political commitment to tackle these critical issues, which each year mean that 2.6 million children die before their fifth birthday.
Having visited India before, I knew it was a place of enormous contrasts; death is part of life and life can be desperately cheap. I was, however, still shocked to learn that in India nearly 5,000 children die every day. Can you imagine the outrage if 5,000 children died every day in a war? A major cause of these deaths is malnutrition, which weakens children so their bodies can’t withstand routine illnesses like diarrhoea and pneumonia. Almost half of India’s children that do survive are stunted, meaning their bodies and brains don’t develop properly due to lack of nutrition.
In Delhi, I visited the Okhla slum, home to some 100,000 of the most marginalised people. Many of the slum dwellers are migrants from rural India who, ironically, came to Delhi in search of a better life. Okhla is like much of Delhi; chaotic and vibrant, the skyline breached by hotels, factories and businesses. It is as you delve deeper in to the winding, rubbish strewn streets that you realise the sheer size of the slum. It was in Okhla that I met Kusum and her baby daughter, Ritu.
Ritu was born nine months ago, the sixth of Kusum’s children. Her eldest child is 16 years old, born shortly after Kusum’s marriage at the age of 15. Ritu was severely underweight at birth, weighing just three and a half pounds. At nine months, she is about the size of my own four month old daughter. For Kusum, life is a daily battle to find enough food to feed her six children, with wheat the staple food in the slums and vegetables incredibly difficult to afford. Kusum told me that Save the Children’s mobile health unit allows her to seek regular medical advice and treatment, without which she’s not sure what would happen to Ritu. She may not be sure but I’m certain what would happen to her.
The mobile health unit is a free service provided to the community for women and children. The unit I visited was well equipped with medical stocks, and I watched professional and dedicated doctors and staff dispensing diagnosis and treatment for a broad range of ailments and infections. Importantly, the doctors also provide education to the local community about health, hygiene and sanitation, in order to reduce the reoccurrence of preventable diseases. On the day I visited, and despite monsoon rains, the mobile health unit treated over 200 patients from Okhla alone.
There are those who question British aid to India. At a time when India is investing in a space programme and our economy is in recession, with severe cuts being made to vital local services in our communities, that is understandable. But seeing the benefit that the poorest gain from lifesaving interventions such as this, justifies Save the Children’s investment in India and the Department for International Development’s largely well-targeted aid programme. And as you walk through Delhi’s slums, with children scavenging piles of rubbish in search of food to eat or scraps to sell, you realise the enormous scale of the problems India faces.
The elephant in the room is the extent to which India, a brilliant and proud nation, can better ensure that it invests its own resources in the most effective way – given our historic links, a diplomatic minefield for the UK and a huge challenge for India. Fundamentally though, for the UK to behave as a responsible member of the international community, it is right to take action that saves lives every day.
The government is right to convene next week’s meeting of world leaders to address the crisis of malnutrition, which is responsible for 300 children’s deaths around the world every single hour. But to turn the tide on this endemic problem, one summit will clearly not be enough. Next year, as the UK hosts the G8, there is a real opportunity to further galvanise global action to address hunger. And to truly demonstrate his commitment to tackling poverty, Cameron must now introduce the long-promised legislation committing 0.7% of national income to aid, and secure a brighter future for millions of children like Ritu.