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Letter from America
Enabling the rural underprivileged, combating malnutrition
Fazle Rashid

          CELL phone network of Grameen Phone in rural Bangladesh was cited as a success story at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) held recently in Davos, Switzerland. The Grameen Phone has fostered entrepreneurial phone ladies who provide communication services for the entire village, the conference was informed.
A man from Manhattan, New York can talk to his parents in Barguna without any hassle. Likewise parents in Daganbhuiya under greater Noakhali can talk to their daughter living in Texas. These even a decade ago was something inconceivable. The example of the Grameen Phone came up when Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT's Media Laboratory, divulged that he was in collaboration with Quanta Computer were planning to manufacture laptop computer at a cost of $100 for the developing countries. Quanta, a Taiwanese company manufactures 30 per cent of the global demand for laptops.
The new device will have a screen that can be read in direct sunlight, wireless networking capabilities and a hand crank to generate power. The president of Microsoft argued that a cellphone like device would make more sense than a laptop computer in developing countries because the demand for wireless communications services is growing fast.
A $100 laptop as a cash register will be quite attractive. Low cost laptops could also serve as a way to record and preserve contracts and other legal documents. Written communication requires a literate population. But that is a good thing. If reading writing and typing are key to employment, people will be motivated to acquire those skills, Negroponte argued. Both the critics and the promoters of the move sound convincing. Cellphones have proven uses and will continue to spread rapidly in developing countries like Bangladesh. Cellphones have their limits. Offering general purpose technologies like low cost laptops could turn out to be a big payoff.
Meanwhile, a World Bank (WB) study has concluded that the growth of over 100 million children across the globe is stunted due to lack of nutrition knowledge among parents. The spread of knowledge on nutrition among the parents would yield far better results than politically popular feeding programme. Lack of food is normally not the major cause of malnutrition among the children, the latest report of the WB said.
Malnutrition causes irrepairable damage among children before the age of two, long before they begin to attend school in the primary level. The scale of malnutrition in India, Bangladesh and Nepal surprisingly is nearly double than those in the sub-Saharan Africa which is more poorer. The percentage of underweight and stunted children in Bangladesh is 47.7 and 44.7 respectively. The same figure for India is 46.7 and 44.9 respectively. India's position is slightly better than that of Bangladesh.
India, of course, falls far behind China where the percentage of underweight and children with stunted growth is 10 and 14.2 respectively. India is frequently compared with China as the emerging economic mega powerhouse. The children in poor families are not the only victims of stunted growth and underweight. A quarter of the children population under the age of five in affluent families in India suffer from the same maladies.
Nutrition programme in India -- mainly to assist those between the age of three and six -- does not yield the desired results. It is too late to prevent stunting and damage to intellect that occurs by age two. The World Bank report emphasises the urgency of teaching mothers to properly feed and care for babies and toddlers than on school meal programme. The debate about how to grapple with the problem is considered very crucial at a time when the world is pushing to reduce child mortality by two-thirds over the next decade. Malnutrition is the major cause of the half of child mortality the world over.
The World Bank report says that to counter this growing menace there should be shift of emphasis from directly providing food to changing the behaviour of mothers. Lactating mothers should breast feed their children for the first six months. Improvements in sanitation and health are also important. In many countries, the first days of mother's thick and yellowish milk called colostrum are discarded which shield children from attack of infections.
Nutrition education, iron supplements and deworming medicines have been found to be better investments for improving nutrition than providing meals for the school-going children. The WB report is straight and matter of fact. Countries must step-in before the children turn two. 'If you miss the period the damage is irreversible especially in cognition but also in growth', an expert concluded. It is true that feeding programmes increase school attendance but it should not come at the expense of efforts to reach pre-school children.
Meera Shekar, one of the co-authors of the study said the feeding programme is not only expensive but is vulnerable to corruption. The food brings votes for politicians. Food acts as magnate that draws mothers and children to centres where nutrition counselling is done and that food itself can provide pregnant women and children under the age of two with a richer, more varied diet while attracting other children to school and helping them concentrate on study, the advocates of feeding programme argue.


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