Privilege Speech: The Economic Cost of Undernutrition in the Philippines

July 25, 2018

Privilege Speech of Senator Loren Legarda
“The Economic Cost of
Undernutrition in the Philippines”
25 July 2018 | Senate Session Hall

Mr. President, distinguished colleagues,


The Philippines has been showing an impressive performance in terms of economic growth. Our growth rate of more than 6% annually, which is one of the highest in Southeast Asia, the growing trust of investors as proven by the increasing inflow of investments in the country, and the upgrade in our credit rating by Fitch Ratings, to name a few, are accomplishments to be proud of.


But all of these should also have meaning to our people. All of these should translate to services that will improve the lives of Filipinos.


One of the urgent things we must attend to affects the children of today and the future of our society—undernutrition.


Our nutrition indicators not only lag behind most of our neighboring countries in the ASEAN region but even when compared to developing countries in Africa.


Undernutrition is the direct or indirect cause of almost half of child deaths. Over 29,000 Filipino children below five die each year due to undernutrition. This is about 38% of all deaths among Filipino children under five.


While one million Filipino children suffer from severe or moderate acute malnutrition each year, 14 of the nutrition indicators show that over 28 million children suffer from undernutrition.


This is alarming for both our children and our society as a whole.


Undernutrition is not only associated with child survival and physical health, it is also a threat to psychological, cognitive development. The damage is largely irreversible. It not only affects children’s physical growth, it also diminishes their learning capacity and school performance[1]. Later in life as adults and professionals, they have lower productivity and reduced earnings by half.


Moreover, the negative impacts of undernutrition erode the most basic foundation of economic growth: people’s strength and energy, creative and analytical capacity, initiative, and entrepreneurial drive.


It is unfortunate that we did not reach many of the targets in the last two Philippine Plans of Action for Nutrition (PPAN) covering 2005-2010 and 2011-2016. Further, we did not achieve the food and nutrition security goals of the Millennium Development Goals.


The Joint Assessment of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement also reported that key challenges in implementing the Plans of Action for Nutrition, and achieving our target outcomes, include weak political commitment at both the national and local levels; and limits in using a proper nutrition lens in developing and implementing regular and specialized programs by key player agencies.


All of these should compel us to work even harder, together, across all sectors, to mitigate this issue.


Value of economic losses due to undernutrition

The Department of Health, with UNICEF and the National Nutrition Council, published two reports[2] on the economic implications of the status of national nutrition, as well as a business case for nutrition investment in the Philippines.


According to the first report,  the Philippines is losing and will continue to lose around $4.5 billion per year if current rates of undernutrition are not mitigated.  In 2015, this loss was equivalent to around 1.5% of the country’s GDP, which has made a significant dent in the national economy.[3]


The report presents a case for investing in nutrition in the Philippines and outlines evidence-based and nutrition-specific intervention packages to address nutrition concerns in the country.


Apart from posing grave survival and health risks, undernutrition impacts serious human capital development deficits that result in lower work productivity and earnings.


The said report estimates that the total economic burden emerging from the various cases of undernutrition is estimated at around PhP220 billion annually—equivalent to a 1.5% loss in our GDP in 2015.


Adult productivity deficits caused by childhood stunting and micronutrients deficiencies entails the greatest loss from undernutrition, which reaches more than PhP150 billion every year.


Stunting alone contributes to more than 50% of the economic costs of undernutrition at PhP115 billion or $2.3 billion.


Beyond our moral obligation and humanitarian imperatives, the high economic cost of not doing anything to lift the burdens of undernutrition in the Philippines should compel and drive urgent action.


By investing in the available effective, affordable and equity-focused nutrition with 90% coverage of all interventions, we can reduce the burden of national undernutrition by more than Php78 billion per year.


In short, addressing the huge economic burden of undernutrition is highly cost-effective for the country in the long-term. If implemented over the next 10 years and costing only around PhP5.7 billion per year, this suggested strategy can yield very high returns and an attractive cost-benefits ratio of one is to 12 (1:12).


This means that every Php50 investment in these interventions can save around Php624 in forgone earnings or in health expenditures because of undernutrition.


Mr. President, as legislators and representatives of our people, we owe this to every Filipino child, to every Filipino citizen.


As Congress has the power of the purse, it is incumbent upon us to ensure our citizens are able to benefit from the economic success we are enjoying. Only then, can we help this administration fulfill the promises made to the Filipino people.


Incidentally, my office already received last night the President’s Budget Message for 2019, and the budget theme for next year is “Building a Bright Future for the Philippines and its People”.  As the Committee on Finance shall soon commence the task of reviewing the 2018 budget and scrutinizing the proposals for next year, we will make sure that human capital development, starting with the need to address the problem of undernutrition, will be the main component of the government’s strategy in  securing a bright future for our people.


I want to emphasize that strong government commitment and strategic budget allocation at both national and local levels is highly critical.


The DOH, the NNC, and many other line agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Department of Education, will all need to invest in evidence-based nutrition-sensitive interventions to target nutritionally at-risk populations or areas in their program activities.


Particular attention should also be given to underserved sectors, such as indigenous populations, poor families, and families with children with disabilities. It is only this way that we will be able to provide equitable services to all Filipinos.


To respond to the alarming situation of undernutrition, the Philippines has adopted and approved the Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition for 2017-2022. This is very much in line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s 10-point Economic Agenda and promise of long-term, strategic development plan.


The All for Health towards Health for All Agenda of the DOH is an integral part of the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022. This Plan of Action concretizes our commitment to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG No. 2, which seeks to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition.


It also recognizes the importance of the ‘First 1,000 Days’ of the life of the child as the most critical window of opportunity to avert malnutrition, and allow for optimal growth and development.


We have to sustain the momentum we have gained in the economic progress we have achieved. We need stronger political will and accountability to ensure effective, strategic and equitable implementation of our Plans of Action to address the pressing issue of undernutrition among our children.


The proposed package of the Plan of Action also relies on strong and motivated community workforce, such as our Barangay Nutrition Scholars and Barangay Health Workers. They need to be adequately supported by our LGUs and provided with the needed tools, skills, attitudes and knowledge to be able to do their job well. We need to empower them and one way to do this is to re-think our publicly-funded plantilla posts. Let us please remember that they, too, have families to feed and children to send to school.


Finally, being identified as a priority legislative agenda item in the Philippine Development Plan, the proposed provisions of Senate Bill 383 –- or the Strengthening of the Barangay Nutrition Programme — that I filed right at the start of this Congress, will ultimately address the many critical policy and capacity gaps in the Philippines. I enjoin my colleagues in this Chamber for support and approval of this bill.


Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, it is high time for our government to start investing in its biggest, most important resource — the Filipino people, particularly our children.


Let us invest in long-term solutions that will allow us to harness our economic progress more strategically and effectively, with our people at the heart of our work.


It is high time for us to invest in every Filipino – starting in the early years, in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – so we can leave a definite brighter future for this country.


Thank you, Mr. President.


[1] Stunting may reduce a child’s IQ by 5 to 11 points.

[2] Economic Consequences of Undernutrition in the Philippines: A Damage Assessment Report; & Business Case for Nutrition Investment in the Philippines.


[3] Foreword by Ms. Lotta Sylwander, Country Representative of UNICEF