Unspeakable Burden of Growing Up
In the winter of 2011, I traveled to Punjab in Northern India to work with a local NGO, the Vikas Centre, as a volunteer researcher in micro- finance. The majority of our job was to interview migrant workers from Southern provinces in our neighborhood slums to get to know their backgrounds. One girl who was around 10 years old, named Disha, was smashing a light bulb she had collected to burn it to extract the metal inside so she could sell it to help her family. She was like most of children in the slums — illiterate, and seemingly suffering from mental and physical challenges due to malnutrition. I asked her mother how she feels about her young daughter working in a different town. She simply told me, ”There is nothing I can do, there is nothing.” As she repeated this I did not need to know the Punjabi language to understand the fear and sense of helplessness from this little girl’s penetrating gaze.
The world is watching a continuing growth in population, and this comes with a rapacious appetite for fuel and food, accompanied by unpredictable climate change and catastrophic refugee immigration. In 2016, it is projected that 83 million people will be added to the world’s population. Even assuming that fertility levels will continue to decline, the global population is expected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, according to the medium projection variant of the United Nations. In addition, the greatest increase in population will occur in the most economically vulnerable areas – Africa and South Asia.¹
Our ability to achieve sustainable development will largely depend on the future dynamics of the world’s population. Higher life expectancy is one of the reasons why the population is growing. However, I would like to focus on the people at the opposite end of the demographic panel — children.
700 million people worldwide live on less than $1.90 USD per day, which translate to 1 out of every 10 people on this planet. Every day they wonder whether they can make it to the next day or even through the current day.² Of these individuals, 20% are children (147 million).³
The child whose family falls under the poverty line is most likely to grow up poor and without enough nutrition. This results in a vicious cycle in which high fertility and poverty are mutually reinforcing in a family: a miniature poverty trap.
It is reported that with Iodine deficiency, which is the world’s greatest single cause of mental challenges and brain damage, children suffer from irreversible mental and physical challenges, and grow up working as unskilled laborers just like their parents. However, a lower child mortality rate simply means more children survive their first five years. But what about the next 10 years of childhood?
First, from the economic perspective, it takes 260 million dollars to solve the extreme poverty problem worldwide. With increasing population, if we decide to ignore the problem now, the consequence is immeasurable. Secondly, according to the World Food Programme, even during the food crisis in 2008, we actually had enough food to provide every single human being with 2,700 calories per day, which exceeds the daily need of 2100 calories for most people.
Then why are there still hundreds of millions of children wondering whether they can make it to the next day with enough nutrition since we know how to provide food to everyone on this planet? By solving malnutrition, we can at least crush (but maybe not solve) the vicious circle of poverty.
Why should you care? Why should we care?
After spending almost a decade studying economics and development, I find myself wondering whether I can use the disciplinary perspective I bring to the issues to address them in a meaningful way. I have come to realize that I have very limited knowledge about world issues and find myself trying to address them with my personal opinions. I do know, however, that it will be possible to solve these problems only with international cooperation (at least we know this has been important in reducing starvation). This is a long fight and will never be easy.
Despite all these impediments, I also believe that it is unacceptable to see a child fight a life and death battle every single day by herself when we know how to prevent it. I hope one day we can tell our next generation that there was a terrible time in history, when growing up was a lifetime burden for hundreds of millions of children who had brains and bodies that were stunted due to starvation and malnutrition, but we successfully turned growing up into a journey surrounded by indescribable joy.
My hope is that we can all work hard in our own fields, and with open minds to cooperate with different fields. We may be the experts in our own field. In other fields, however, we may know little. Together, we can solve the issues that are unsolvable by one single individual, but solvable together in our generation. I conclude with the wise words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
¹ World Population Prospect 2015 United Nations http://esa.un.org/ unpd/wpp/publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf
² Based on 2011 PPP. The indicator is adjusted in October 2015 from the number $1.25 based on 2005 PPP
³ Malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development during childhood. Stunting, for example, affects more than 147 million pre-schoolers in developing countries, according to SCN’s World Nutrition Situation 5th report. Iodine deficiency is the world’s greatest single cause of mental retardation and brain damage.