Minister Teixeira addresses misconceptions of the Child Food Poverty Report of 2024

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See below full statement from the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and Goverance:

In June, 2024, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) published a report titled “Child Food Poverty – Nutrition deprivation in early childhood”. The report, according to UNICEF, examines the status, trends, inequities and drivers of child food poverty in early childhood, including the impact of global and local food and nutrition crises.

The report focuses on low and middle-income countries where, according to UNICEF, most children living in child food poverty reside. The analyses use data from the UNICEF Global Database on infant and Young Child Feeding which is comprised of surveys conducted in 137 countries and territories, including Guyana.

The Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance, as the Government’s lead human rights treaty reporting agency considers it imperative to offer clarity to all Guyanese, many of whom have rightfully expressed confusion and concern about the contents of the 2024 report. These misleading deductions, shown in the forms of graphs and charts, purport that Guyana has somehow seen an increase in child food poverty in 2024.

Gail Teixeira, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance (News Room, August 2021)

However, the facts below will hopefully reassure Guyanese that progress in child nutrition remains paramount. So much so, that the Government of Guyana can confidently state that its interventions from 2020 to 2024 are positively impacting the lives of children and their families.

The facts regarding the report are as follows:

The data used for Guyana is severely outdated

The Report is dated June 2024, and can be easily perceived as a reflection of the current state of affairs globally. However, much of what is stated in the report is not true for countries like Guyana; UNICEF utilised data from the Guyana 2019 and 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) reports. These 2019 and 2014 figures were also being compared to data going back as far as 2000 to assume trends. As a result, the findings of the report are regrettably inaccurate.

As assessment of all the datasets referenced in the report shows that all categories of data are derived from the UNICEF Global Database on Infant and Young Child Feeding. The overarching categories of data available in this database and their sources and dates with regards to Guyana are as follows:

 

Dataset Data Source Year Source Income Group Category used for Guyana in Report
Exclusive breastfeeding 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Early initiation of breastfeeding 2019 MICS 2019

 

High Income
Ever breastfed 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Continued breastfeeding 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Introduction of solid, semisolid or soft foods 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Egg and/or flesh foods consumption 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Zero vegetable or fruit consumption 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Severe child food poverty 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Moderate child food poverty  2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Minimum Diet Diversity 2019 MICS 2019 High Income
Minimum Meal Frequency 2014 MICS 2014 High Income
Minimum Acceptable Diet 2014 Mics 2014 High Income
Guyana placed at disadvantage with 2014 and 2019 data while being considered high-income in 2024

In noting that the report considers the most recent statistics to be from a five-year-old report (MICS 2019), or is some cases, a 10-year-old report (MICS 2014), one must pay keen attention to the fact that as a result of the report being published and dated in 2024, Guyana is consistently listed as a ‘High-Income Country’ in all of the datasets (all available on the UN websites).

This is an undoubtedly unfair and flawed analysis, as in 2019, Guyana was considered by the World Bank to be an upper middle-income country, and in 2014, long before the onset of oil revenues, Guyana was classified on the World Bank’s economic index as a lower-middle income country.

This cannot be ignored as economic classifications in surveys are generally intended to aggregate and analyse data for groups of similar economies or similar countries i.e., data experts who manipulate the data to inform rankings in all types of statistical analyses generally use those economic classifications by grouping and analysing countries with similar income levels together.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the utilisation of dated statistics in tandem with an up-to-date income classification without adequate consideration for the significant economic shifts that have occurred over the past four years inherently places Guyana at a disadvantage.

The results rightfully motivate persons to ask an obvious question – Why is Guyana rated so poorly if we have access to more resources than we did five years ago? The answer is simple – the report is still addressing perceptions of the situation in Guyana through the lens of datasets that UNICEF itself collected as much as ten years ago whilst incorrectly classifying Guyana at a status it did not have in those years. To err on the side redundancy and for further clarity, we repeat – the data is alarmingly outdated for a 2024 report.

Analysis of situation in the Gaza Strip depicts the real impact of up-to-date data

To the credit of the report, it demonstrates how the proper use of up-to-date data can result in impactful and accurate findings that validate the real-world perceptions of global current affairs.

For example, In the Gaza Strip, months of hostilities and restrictions on humanitarian aid have collapsed the food and health systems, resulting in catastrophic consequences for children and their families. Five rounds of data collected between December 2023 and April 2024 (5 datasets in 5 months) have consistently found that 9 out of 10 children in the Gaza Strip are experiencing severe food poverty, surviving on two or fewer food groups per day. This, according UNICEF itself is “evidence of the horrific impact the conflict and restrictions are having on families’ ability to meet children’s food needs – and the speed at which it places children at risk of life-threatening malnutrition”; a fact that all conscientious individuals can agree on.

Consideration of cultural and culinary diversity

Aside from the outdated data, the report’s lack of consideration for cultural nuances within the Guyanese context, and other countries, does not do the Guyanese people justice. Guyana boasts a rich ethnic diversity of Guyanese Amerindians who are our indigenous peoples, and Guyanese of African, Indian, Chinese and Portuguese descent whose ancestors were all brought to the shores of Guyana under the cruel realities of slavery and indentureship.

A critical part of the Guyanese resilience has been our people’s bond to their ancestral identities, including through the preservation of culinary cultures and dietary traditions. Such culinary diversity is upkept through the informal preservation of culture in many communities, from the hinterland regions to the rural and urban areas, and is an important part of the Guyanese identity from as early as birth. Parents pay keen attention to ensuring that their babies and children are nourished with the same trusted foods that their parents, grandparents and prior generations used.

While this is by no means a justification or an excuse in the interest of supporting situations of undernutrition and malnutrition, it must be appreciated that the diets of people across the country are diverse, but that importantly, different does not always mean bad.

The indicators and metrics used to measure nutrition are applied across the board and not adapted to consider the social-cultural variances across countries. As such, it does not take into consideration the nuances of diets in countries such as Guyana, where, for example, Guyanese Amerindians may have diets comprising primarily of cassava, fish, fruits and vegetables, which are equally nutritious forms of various critical nutrients.

Further, UNICEF’s collection of data takes into consideration anthropometric characteristics which invariably discriminate against genetic predispositions of height, weight, etc. For example, the average height among Guyanese Amerindians may be below the average height of Europeans, however, this is by no means an indicator of stunting, although it is often misconstrued by such reports to reflect such.

54% of children in severe food poverty live in relatively wealthier households across the world

Again, it is UNICEF itself that admits that “nearly half (46 per cent) of all cases of severe child food poverty are among poor households where income poverty is likely to be a major driver, while 54 per cent – or 97 million children – live in relatively wealthier households”. In this 54% of the cases of child food poverty in wealthier households, it is not economic or income poverty but “poor food environments and feeding practices” that “are the main drivers of food poverty in early childhood”. This statistic should not go unnoticed as it is a reflection of the global reality that while lower income households may face challenges with child nutrition, wealthier families also face similar issues of child food poverty due to greater and different choices. These two realities are not mutually exclusive, yet extensive focus in the report is placed on poorer counties and their citizens, while the equally serious challenges of wealthier countries and their citizens have been disregarded.

Availability of Data outside of the UN system

UNICEF, like many other UN agencies, relies extensively on data that they have collected themselves. This practice intentionally disregards the availability of more up-to-date administrative data in national agencies. For example, the Ministry of Health through its various programmes, including its Epidemiological Unit, has been able to provide current data in the compilation of various reports at the local level. However, such administrative data is regrettably not considered in the compilation of reports such as the 2014 and 2019 Multiple Indictor Cluster Surveys (MICS), as these rely wholly on data that UNICEF itself collects through surveys that they conduct locally.

In the absence of expansive national data in small developing countries, due to numerous resource constraints, such administrative data is valuable and could be validated by UNICEF and absorbed into their studies and analyses to ensure that the results are a more timely and accurate reflection of the current situations in those countries, like Guyana.

Understandably, it may be argued that national statistics agencies such as the Bureau of Statistics in Guyana are the ones who provide assistance to the UN to conduct their surveys. However, these project-driven surveys with a primary goal to provide international organizations with data are often deficient in funding, staffing, and the knowledge necessary for collecting the relevant and context specific information. Consultants are often also not adequately considerate of the cultural nuances and therefore do not adapt their data collection tools to make them more relevant and comprehensible to the sample population. As such, participants often do not understand the real implications of the survey and their responses may be easily misconstrued to represent a false reality. For example, if a researcher were to ask someone from a hinterland Amerindian village if they consume bacon and broccoli, they will likely say no. It is then often deduced that that their diet is therefore not sufficiently diverse or nutritious, although their local substitutes are just as, and in some cases more nutritious. This is exactly why local administrative data, once validated and verified, should be actively considered, especially in small developing countries with big data constraints.

Altogether, the report and its recommendations are undoubtedly intended to inform policy and guide the interventions of governments by analyzing empirical data. Thus, the intentions of UNICEF should not be misconstrued as being negative in nature, but the absence of checks and balances to ensure that the data being analyzed is accurate and adequately up-to-date has resulted in countries like Guyana, Suriname and other countries in the global south being gravely misrepresented.

Child nutrition remains paramount

Again, the fact that access to nutritious meals is paramount cannot be discredited and this is why the Government of Guyana has been working extensively to invest revenues generated from the oil economy over the past four years into diversifying and expanding agriculture across the country, constructing new and expanded health facilities across all regions, training Guyanese in diverse fields such as Food, Nutrition and Dietetic Aide through free GOAL scholarships, introducing and expanding hot meals and school feeding programmes, distributing across the board “Because We Care” cash grants for all children enrolled in public and private schools annually, and expanding road and bridge networks to ensure equitable access to goods (including produce, agricultural equipment and supplies, etc.) and services for all.

Many countries like Guyana in the global south are now striving to improve livelihoods by enshrining equal fundamental rights, ensuring equal opportunities and sustaining equitable access to goods and services, while also struggling to improve data collection. Consistent measures to enhance development while simultaneously reconstructing economies affords due credit to such countries for the small steps made in the right direction.

However, such efforts have gone unnoticed in this report, especially in the case of Guyana, which is only mentioned in the labelling of about three graphs in the report. Guyana, like most other small developing countries, was not afforded a single line or a reference to any other report which may highlight best practices and opportunities for development.

The Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance takes this opportunity to urge Guyanese to engage in more meaningful analyses of reports that are published about our country by agencies outside of Guyana. Especially with regards to surveys and their findings, it is critical to always review which datasets are used and how the data was collected. Research is indisputably impacted by its methodology and the use of accurate and up-to-date data. As such, we ought to be cautious about entertaining sensational headlines that arouse knee-jerk reactions without thoroughly examining such reports in greater depth to arrive at more informed and learned opinions.

The least small developing countries deserve is an opportunity to have our authentic stories heard, and our little victories celebrated. Only then will we will be able to collectively accurately address the real issues of nutrition deprivation and other forms of inequalities from an honest, intentional and rights-oriented perspective.

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