When the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to close throughout Somalia, Sareeyo, a mother of three, panicked. Suddenly, the school meals that her children had relied upon for essential nutrition would be suspended.
“When I heard schools were closed for 15 days, we started suffering again, because I could not afford to feed my children twice a day and they felt hungry,” she told the World Food Programme (WFP).
Sareeyo’s fears were echoed by hundreds of millions of families globally. The pandemic ultimately caused shutdowns that kept more than 1.6 billion children from school. Governments and humanitarian organizations such as WFP and UNICEF have scrambled to adapt school feeding programs to ensure students kept receiving nutrition.
But economies were faltering and millions of households were impacted by the lockdown measures as a vicious COVID-19 cocktail of job and livelihood losses, impaired food production and distribution, and insufficient or lack of social safety nets, including school feeding programmes, has heightened food insecurity among vulnerable families.
And so Sareeyo’s family and millions of others waited for food.
Each day with reduced nutrition, however, raised the specter of worsening malnutrition that in the long-term compromises their cognitive and physical development.
And that could ultimately reduce the human capital — the health, nutrition, and educational status — of her children, according to a recent report by the World Bank.
In fact, a recent report by the World Bank found that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the human capital potential of children worldwide.
Pictured here, a take-home food ration distribution at Kakamar Primary School, Ka'abong, Karamoja region in Uganda, July 2020.
What Is Human Capital?
The World Bank developed the Human Capital Index (HCI) as a way to summarize how much potential a newborn child raised in a country can expect to attain by the time they reach 18 years of age. The HCI gives a fairly good clue as to how much governments have invested in their children – their future workforce.
HCI scores range from 0 to 1. Countries with a score closer to 1 are closer to realizing the full potential of their human capital, while countries with a score closer to the other end of the HCI scale (0) are very far from tapping into their full human potential.
This might seem like a strangely objectifying way to measure human potential, but the HCI score is based on essential social criteria: the child survival rate; how many years children go to school on average; and the health of children under the age of 5.
It turns out that improving the health and educational success of children is beneficial not only for an individual who is able to reach their full potential, but also for a society as a whole.
Countries with the lowest HCI scores have the highest rates of child mortality, stunting, and school attrition. Rates of stunting — when a child doesn't receive enough quality nutrition between the ages of 0 and 5 and as a result faces physical and cognitive impairments — are highest in countries where people do not have easy access to food.
Just as the prevalence of stunting negatively impacts a country’s HCI score, so too does the education rate for girls in a country. In countries where girls are more likely to drop out of school, HCI scores are lower, because the full potential of millions of girls is being held back.
HCI scores capture the general human potential of a country, but they also provide a strong incentive for governments to invest in their children. Countries with higher HCI scores have much higher wealth concentrated in individuals, meaning people are more likely to have the health, education, experience and skills to better be able to discover and take advantage of economic activities that drives the economic growth and development of a country.
If countries want to spur sustainable and inclusive development, then investing in children is paramount. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have an average HCI score of 0.4, meaning that if they were to reach their full HCI potential (score of 1) they can more than double their economic potential just by ensuring the welfare of their children.
Why School Feeding Programs Can Help
People practice social distancing in a queue to wash their hands on arrival at the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme to support families at Adekunle Anglican Primary School, Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria on May 22, 2020.
The World Bank’s latest report sheds light on how the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further widen HCI scores globally.
The World Food Programme estimates that an additional 135 million people will face chronic hunger by the end of the year, an unprecedented rise. Most of this hunger will be concentrated in countries with low HCI scores. Unless food and other forms of support are provided to families in affected communities, then the lifelong potential of millions of children could be endangered.
The World Bank warns that the pandemic could cause the HCI scores for countries to drop by an average of 1%, a decline that has major repercussions for the current generation of children.
While that might not seem like a lot, a 1% decline reflects millions of children whose futures will be set back due to early mortality, illness, hunger and malnutrition, dropping out of school, and entering the workforce early. It particularly relates to girls, who will be more likely to be forced into early marriage, early pregnancy, and sexual abuse and exploitation.
One of the most effective ways to prevent and even reverse this decline, particularly for children of school-age years (typically 5-14 years of age in developing countries), is to invest in school feeding programs, according to the WFP.
Providing meals to children throughout the remainder of the pandemic serves multiple purposes.
Most immediately, it provides a safety net to families, incentivizing parents to send kids to school. The nutrients keep kids focused in the classroom and ready to catch up and stay ahead in school, while also improving their overall health, well-being, and physical and cognitive development. Most school meals are fortified with vitamins and minerals and provide children with their healthiest meal of the day.
In the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, it’s especially critical to provide families with these meals so that they don’t put their children into the workforce or marry off their daughters. Ongoing school meal programs will help to ensure that students are ready to return to the classroom.
For countries navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, they can’t lose sight of their HCI and the long-term welfare of children.
For Sareeyo in Somalia, school meals have provided a bridge to the future, a promise that her children will be able to reach their full potential.
“I cried for happiness when I saw the children coming home satisfied with full stomachs,” she told WFP.