Remarks by Deputy Chief of Mission Julie Chung at the National Conference on Nutrition

As Prepared for Delivery
InterContinental Hotel, Phnom Penh
March 3, 2015

Your Excellency Yim Chhay Li, Deputy Prime Minister
Ms. Rebecca Black, Mission Director, USAID Cambodia
Mr. Gianpietro Bordignon, Representative and Country Director of WFP Cambodia
Ms. Sun Ah Kim Suh, Deputy Representative, UNICEF Cambodia
Ms. Nina Brandstrup, Representative, FAO Cambodia
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, Excellencies, Members of Government

I am truly pleased to be here today, joining you all to address what many would argue is Cambodia’s number one priority for sustainable development: child malnutrition. In my three years in Cambodia, nutrition is a subject that has been brought to my attention regularly — one that my staff and I continue to be devoted to assisting the government and communities of Cambodia to improve.

Good nutrition is the basis of all development — for individuals to reach their physical and cognitive potential, and for communities and countries to have a healthy, productive and prosperous population. If we were to follow two children of the same age, in the same community – one with all the benefits of a healthy diet of nutritious foods, clean water and good hygiene, and another without the same nutritional advantages, it would not take long to see the deficits appear. The child without proper nutrition would quickly begin to fall behind his peers. What is true for these two children is true for the nation as a whole. The growth and development of a country is clearly linked to the growth and development of its children. Good nutrition is especially critical during the first thousand days of a child’s life, and has a profound impact on her ability to grow and learn, and to contribute to the prosperity of her family, her community, and her country.

With a rapidly developing economy and growing population, Cambodia needs a workforce that is healthy, agile, and able to both learn and adapt quickly. This is particularly critical given Cambodia’s role in the ASEAN community of nations. A healthy, well-educated Cambodian society is essential to the ability to effectively compete in an open regional market and the ever expanding global economy. The Royal Government of Cambodia’s efforts to ensure all Cambodian children reach their potential and are able to fully contribute to their country’s and their region’s growth and stability should be applauded and supported to the fullest extent possible.

Cambodia’s steady move towards middle income status is reflected in the improvements we see in the health and nutrition of its people. This morning, technical experts will present the results of the recently released 2014 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey. These results show that the country has made some improvements when it comes to nutrition. The latest figures show 32 percent of Cambodian children stunted in 2014. This is down from 40 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2005. While this is a promising change, there remains a long road ahead. Nearly one-third of Cambodia’s children are not growing as they should be, and are at risk of never meeting their physical or cognitive potentials. We have the opportunity, by focusing on the nutrition of women and young children, to build the healthy bodies that will, in turn, build a healthy and strong country.

It’s not only eating habits that threaten Cambodia’s nutritional wellbeing. The supply of fish – the country’s most important source of protein – could be drastically affected by the dams that are planned for important sections of the Mekong River. I feel lucky to live near this majestic waterway, and knowing how vital it is to Cambodians’ lives makes me appreciate it all the more. Governments and private citizens alike need to ensure that it will remain a resource available to its many people, so that its fish may flourish, and so that farmers can continue to grow food for the country and ensure Cambodia’s future food security.

So what are we going to do? I think we can start by realizing that the issue of nutrition is a complex one. There are many contributing factors to the current problem of stunting. Complex problems can be overcome with well-thought out solutions. But those solutions will not come about without teamwork. If we are to continue to bring down the stunting rates in Cambodia, and to realize the potential of a stronger, healthier population, we must work together, take a truly multi-sectoral approach, and address the variety of factors that contribute to stunting and are critical to the lives of women and children under age two. Safe and clean water for drinking, access to diverse and nutritious foods, healthy behaviors, access to health care – integrating these and other critical components will allow Cambodia to continue the successful reductions we see in the Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey data this year.

I want to underline how seriously we take the problem of malnutrition and what we’re doing about it. America’s most important priority in this country is to help improve the lives of Cambodians. Improving nutrition is a critical part of that priority.

Through President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative – a global campaign to fight hunger – USAID and its U.S. government partners are helping farmers in the provinces around the Tonle Sap lake improve their yields and their incomes with simple but effective techniques and tools. They are also learning how to select and prepare the foods that give their families the best nutrients.

Last year we launched the USAID NOURISH project which is also partly funded by Feed the Future. USAID NOURISH is a 5 year, 16.5 million dollar initiative that is working with Cambodia to address challenges in nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene – all significant parts of the stunting equation.

We are also supporting school feeding programs with our partner, the World Food Programme. This program is not only keeping children in school, it is providing them with the energy and health to learn and retain the knowledge and skills they’ll need later in life.

Our military personnel, whom we normally associate with war and conflict, have rolled up their sleeves to become builders and constructors for Cambodian schools. Since 2010 we have completed 42 humanitarian assistance projects in six different provinces valued at over $11.2 million and we will continue to build bathrooms, medical clinics, and schools around the country aimed at helping Cambodia better serve its people in areas like health, education, and sanitation conditions. You can learn more about the many ways we engage in these areas on our Facebook page.

My team will continue to push for the assistance that improves nutrition during the critical 1000 days, and helps improve Cambodian lives. But we can’t do this alone. Governments, NGOs, the private sector – everyone has a role to play. Not long ago, I met Joel, one of our Peace Corps volunteers in Siem Reap province. In addition to his regular responsibilities, Joel is working with his host family to start a pilot gardening project. I was impressed by their productive garden plots, and with the growing interest Joel and his family have inspired in the other young people in their community. As they create opportunities to expand the local diet, increase income, and engage youth, they are also exemplifying the importance of the success we can have through cooperation. Nutrition and agriculture require global attention and global investments, but examples like Joel’s – of local and personal participation – have an important role in the solution as well.

Investments in the nutrition of women and children under two are investments in the health of a nation. On average, for every one dollar invested in nutrition, we see a return of 16 times – in some countries even much more. These are long-term investments. We can’t expect to see immediate results. But knowing that nutrition underpins every positive outcome we want to see for Cambodia, they are investments we cannot afford to lose.

Thank you.