The Micronutrient Initiative

Unsung Canadian leader fights global malnutrition

Macronutrient Initiative

The Micronutrient Initiative (MI) is one of Canada's best-kept secrets. Combating malnutrition by providing supplements to millions of malnourished people around the world, this incredible NGO deserves more of our attention. Find out more about global malnutrition and how MI is making a difference.

In our own backyard is an organization that’s making a dent in the fight against international malnutrition—and most Canadians don’t know anything about it. Unless you happen to work for the Treasury, in which case you’re likely very aware that the Canadian government invested $150 million last November, with $3.5 billion committed over the next five years.

A world of difference

Founded in 1992, headquartered in Ottawa, the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has been working with governments, other NGOs, private corporations, and local and global partners in more than 70 countries to put life-changing nutrients into the hands of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Among its dozen regional offices, the one in Dakar, Senegal, oversees programming in Africa, including vitamin A supplementation for kids, salt iodization, and food fortification. The Ottawa office manages similar programs in the Americas. In New Delhi, India, programming takes place for the malnourished millions in Asia.

Did you know?

Twenty-two million babies in Asia alone are iodine deficient, a leading cause of preventable brain damage.

Up close and personal

An estimated 2 billion people around the world are malnourished, and it’s the underlying cause of up to one-third of child deaths annually. To combat this, in 2013 alone, MI supported programs that reached almost half a billion people.

But it was a recent field visit in the state of Gujarat, India, where Joel Spicer, the president of MI, got a first-hand look at just why assistance from Canada and other countries is imperative for the very future of humanity.

With three kids under the age of six, Spicer is well aware of what the height and weight of a healthy child should be. But in Gujarat, where an estimated 43 percent of children under five are malnourished, stunted development is a tragic fact of life.

Many 11-year-olds look like six-year-olds, Spicer shares in a phone interview. And when you hold them, they feel frail. “When I pick up a kid, it’s like picking up a bag of cloth. It’s one of the most tangible sensory experiences.”

Even more shocking to him was the realization that a girl one would think is nine years old is actually 16 and about to be married. “That girl will go through pregnancy with malnutrition, and that kid will be stunted,” he says.

Unless the cycle is interrupted, and that’s where groups like MI, and more like-minded collaborators—if Spicer has his way—will step in.

The 1,000-day window

Malnutrition doesn’t just mean lack of access to food. MI’s vision for “a world free of hidden hunger” addresses the body’s silent cries for nutrients that are pivotal to good health and will set the stage for life opportunities and for future generations.

Spicer uses the example of anemia, which he says affects 500 million women worldwide and approximately 40 percent of pregnant women. “If you subscribe to the notion that women are the engines, these engines have their brakes on.”

Still, there’s a 1,000-day window between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday, during which breaking the malnutrition cycle can have the greatest impact. Intervening at this stage gives children a higher chance of survival. They’re less likely to die young or suffer from disease later in life, and they’re more likely to reach their full potential.

“That’s where MI is starting to punch hard,” says Spicer, a focus that is echoed in the organization’s 2013 to 2018 strategic plan at micronutrient.org.

Pennies for a better life

Spicer says that MI focuses on low-cost, high-impact interventions. “It doesn’t mean you’ve solved all their problems, but some of the simplest [nutritional] things get handled so they’re resilient enough to resist the shocks that come.”

Ninety cents for 90 days is the NGO’s cost to supply anemic women with much-needed iron and folic acid for healthy fetal development and defect prevention.

Lack of iodine creates goitre and affects cognitive development; through salt iodization with company partners, MI has achieved a cost reduction to five cents per person per year.

MI supplies 75 percent of the world’s need for vitamin A, required to prevent blindness. The cost? Two cents per capsule, says Spicer, courtesy of a Canadian partner in the type of private sector-NGO partnership that he hopes to cultivate further.

Beyond saving and improving the health of millions, it’s estimated that every dollar spent to fight malnutrition in children creates $17 in benefits.

Nutrition and compassion in action

“We aspire to do more,” says Spicer. “Many governments in developmental countries have limitations and need support. It’s going to take a while.”

And while the organization doesn’t currently have a way for individuals to donate, Spicer says we should be proud that our prime minister was on hand on November 30, 2014, to distribute the eight-billionth vitamin A capsule at an MI site in Dakar, Senegal.

“We want people to be aware, to be proud of [this work], and also recognize that this is an area where more needs to be done,” says Spicer. “Canada is a leader in global nutrition investment. But if you sum up all increasing efforts, it’s nowhere near close enough to deal with the huge need.

“We need a totally enhanced approach to break through. We need the best of NGOs, governments, and private sectors to find solutions. How do you unite people around the common question, and what do we want Canada to be known for around the world?

“I want Canada to be known for compassion in action. If we put peoples’ heads and hearts together, we can do it.”

What Canada’s $150 million investment will do

  • Up to 1 million deaths averted. Two vitamin A doses each year will be given to at least 150 million children under five.
  • Iron and folic acid supplements will improve the health of 3.4 million pregnant women and their newborns.
  • Zinc and oral rehydration salts will reach 13 million children with diarrhea, a main cause of children’s deaths.
  • 120 million people will be reached with iodized salt, protecting more than 500,000 babies from mental impairment.

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