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March 18, 2008

Memo to Nick Negroponte: Why not enclose a 2-week supply of Plumpy'Nut with every $100 laptop?


Because what's the point of giving Internet access to people who can't think straight because they're starving to death?

Susan Shepherd, a pediatrician and medical adviser for Doctors Without Borders, wrote an Op-Ed essay which appeared in the January 30, 2008 New York Times about how using Plumpy'Nut (above) — featured here on April 16, 2005 and again on September 30, 2005 — helped, in 2006, over 150,000 malnourished children worldwide recover, with over 90% of those in Niger responding to the nutrient-dense, ready-to-use foil-packaged paste.

The problem?

"... Only 3% of the world's 20 million malnourished children... have access to ready-to-use food."

Here's the Times piece.

    Instant Nutrition

    We have all seen the pictures on television and in magazines of emaciated children looking at us with gaunt faces and empty eyes. The images are moving and disturbing, but if they do not lead to an effective response, they are used in vain.

    Malnutrition can be fatal. Every year, it contributes to the death of five million children under the age of 5. But more of the same kind of food aid impoverished countries now receive will do nothing to reduce these deaths. We need to focus on the food quality, not just the quantity.

    I recently spent a year running a nutritional program in Niger, where, along with other parts of Africa and South Asia, the most cases of childhood malnutrition are found. While there, I became convinced that large numbers of deaths among acutely malnourished children can be prevented by using an innovative nutrient-dense ready-to-use food that is revolutionizing the treatment and prevention of acute malnutrition. If we are to combat malnutrition, we must increase the use of this food and expand the range of products.

    As any parent knows, children grow and develop at breakneck speed until age 3, and sound nutrition is vital to a healthy life. We nurture growth in our own children by providing a varied diet that contains milk (either through breast-feeding or formula), other dairy products and nutritious supplements — just think of the baby food choices available to families in any American supermarket.

    For years, it has been difficult to deliver the nutrient value of milk in communities in Africa and Asia that do not produce or have the resources to buy milk. Without refrigeration and clean water, powdered milk and baby formula are prone to bacterial contamination and cause more harm than good.

    Ten years ago, André Briend, a French scientist, devised a paste of powdered milk, ground peanuts, oil, sugar, vitamins and minerals that solves the problems of preparation, storage and contamination because it is prepared without water. The paste, known as ready-to-use food, can be made locally; children can eat it directly from individual foil packets. More important, most children can be treated at home, rather than being hospitalized. This vastly increases the number of children who can be reached. In Niger, I saw how ready-to-use food enabled thousands to recover from malnutrition.

    In 2006, my colleagues at Doctors Without Borders and I treated more than 150,000 malnourished children worldwide — in Niger, more than 9 out of 10 recovered. But these numbers are a small fraction of those in need. Under United Nations and United States guidelines, only 3 percent of the world’s 20 million malnourished children — those with the severest forms of malnutrition and the highest risk of death — have access to ready-to-use food.

    These conditions are too limiting. Children shouldn’t have to deteriorate to the point of severe malnutrition to “qualify” for ready-to-use food, which is far more nutritious than the fortified blended flours prescribed and supplied by the United States and other international donors for moderately malnourished children. Yes, ready-to-use food may cost more, but it provides the milk that fortified flours do not.

    The United States is the largest single donor of food aid in the world, but it doesn’t provide enough of what young children really need. As the farm bill progresses through Congress, there has been much debate on improving the delivery of food aid. But Congress must also address the quality of this aid.

    If ready-to-use food is distributed more widely and replaces blended flours, fewer children will die of malnutrition. It’s what the children staring at us in those harrowing images need and deserve.

March 18, 2008 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Rob --

That research is based on the wrong way of looking at computers. People tend to think magically throwing computers into a learning environment will increase the efficiency of learning...without having to do anything else.

(for the record, my main area of study is around learning...well measuring learning...but I also know what is effective...consultant to the US gov't as well as doing this for a Big 10 university...not well funded because no one ever wants to hear what I have to say...they all want magic solutions...pop something in and the environment gets better)

What does the computer do? It allows information that would be otherwise impossible to get at. Books -- especially history and world events -- go stale quickly. It allows for collaborations that would not be otherwise possible. Distance education has GREATLY increased in value because of computers...no more mailing in homework and waiting 3 weeks before it arrives and a month before it is graded...all the while you are expected to be learning new material and not sure if you understood the last. It gives instant feedback and collaboration.

If you are in Africa, do you expect one teacher will understand math, reading, physics, chemistry, world events and otherwise? You won't find that here in the states. I helped a friend get a school together in Asia and it has 4 grade levels (that is all there is), all in the same classroom with 2 educators. In their case? it was much more important to get a roof over their head than anything else, but computers will be required for the next generation (and it is much easier to donate a computer than to kidnap a professor and plop them down in the backwoods).

There are so many positives to computers, but educators need to stop looking at them as some magic tool that increases their efficiency. For them to work, they need to adopt new paradigms of teaching and drop old ways. In the US and a lot of other westernized countries? Too many unions to contend with...heck, teachers in the US are demanding that they not be impeded by science and that they should have a constitutionally recognized right to teach their own variety of wacko...se x is impossible until you are 32 and married and babies are found in cabbage patches and taken home. One teacher that seems to be getting her way is doing just this with faux-christians helping her out (real ones would tell her to knock it off)...and the unions stepping in to say that she can't be reprimanded. I want to be a math teacher and my personal belief is that Zero is not a number...I can't see it, so it can't exist. And that is how I want to teach or I'll call discrimination.

All sorts of problems with schools, and almost all come from not wanting to change how anyone goes about business, and the desire for someone else or something else to be accountable. And this is why computers are not very useful.

Funny thing is...3rd world countries? They tend to find a use for something pretty readily or it is tossed away. The only accountability they have -- do their students succeed.

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 27, 2008 1:33:25 PM

Or for that matter, why not skip the notebook and instead use the same resources on food, medicine, and traditional book-based educational materials? There seems to be little to quantify the supposed positive educational effects of introducing computers into the classroom.

Indeed, this article goes quite a ways to making a solid case for just the opposite:


Posted by: Rob O. | Mar 27, 2008 12:22:14 PM

Because feeding people does not get you the type of legacy as giving laptops to people does.

Posted by: DS | Mar 19, 2008 12:19:49 PM

Probably because it doesn't help to mix relief efforts?

Distorts the message?

And because anyone in an area that has kids using computers, they are well off enough that this effort would be wasted when the supply could go to someone else much more destitute?

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 18, 2008 4:49:40 PM

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