Skip to main content


Good nutrition is essential for the human body to grow and develop as it should. Under-nutrition is one of the most serious, yet least addressed, development challenges in the world today, affecting a quarter of the world’s population. Irish Aid is a strong supporter of international and national initiatives aimed at ensuring that young children and their mothers receive better nutrition.


Theresa Moyo's son Emmanuel being assessed at Mtengowanthenga Hospital. Photo: Concern

The challenge of under-nutrition

Under-nutrition occurs when a human being does not have enough of the right kind of food to meet their dietary and energy requirements. It is not simply how much food people eat that is of concern; it is also the nutritional value of that food. Even if people get enough to eat in terms of quantity (macronutrients) poverty can force people to become over-reliant on one food type, often a staple food which is lacking in adequate micronutrients  – the vitamins and minerals necessary in small quantities for physical and mental development.  

Children are most at risk

Under-nutrition in childhood contributes to an estimated 3.1 million child deaths annually (45% of all child deaths in 2011), including some of the deaths that occur from measles, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria.

Under-nutrition early in life affects a child’s immune system. It is also a period during which there is most organ and brain development.  For those who survive from such early-childhood under-nutrition, the consequences for their physical health and for their mental development can be serious. 

Low resistance to disease

Under-nutrition can be both a cause and an effect of disease.  Under-nutrition can be caused by chronic disease (e.g. AIDS, TB), recurrent acute disease (e.g. malaria, pneumonia), mal-absorption (e.g. diarrhoea, tropical sprue) and excessive nutrient loss (e.g. intestinal worms – e.g. hookworm leading to iron deficiency). People who suffer from under-nutrition tend to have less resistance to diseases, and so medical treatments for these people are less effective. For example, for people with AIDS, the vital anti-retroviral treatment is more effective if used in combination with an intake of nutritious food, but many people with AIDS cannot afford to buy food of the nutritional quality which they need. Thus there is a considerable risk that the under-nourished will fall into a vicious cycle of under-nutrition and disease.

Women and mothers play a crucial role

Women are especially at risk at particular stages in their lives. If they are undernourished, or suffer from under-nutrition, they are more likely to have complications in childbirth. The children of such mothers are likely to be born underweight and are more vulnerable to disease.

Poverty a key driver

Many of the world’s poor and marginal populations cannot afford to buy food in sufficient quantity and nutritional quality. They often do not have the knowledge and resources to grow and consume nutritious crops. And they are often not aware of the importance of - or not in a position to adopt - good care practices for breastfeeding and more general feeding care of infants and children.

Shocks, poverty and nutrition deficits

In times of illness, conflict, natural disasters, extreme weather or economic shocks, populations can experience acute under-nutrition and may require therapeutic or supplementary feeding combined with support for recovery. We support screening and identification of children at risk to help prevent severe acute under-nutrition.  We also support the integration of emergency surge capacity within the national health systems of our partner countries so that the capacity to respond is in place before a crisis occurs. 

Our response

Preventing under-nutrition in children and pregnant women is an essential element of our overall approach to tackling hunger. 

Our work contributes to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), specifically MDG 4 to reduce child mortality and MDG 5 to improve maternal health.

This work is additional to our support to affected populations in times of crises and famine when we make sure that children and those who are most at risk of under-nutrition are targeted for our support.

The first 1,000 days matter

It is now widely accepted that by improving nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life - starting from pregnancy - it is possible to prevent the physical and cognitive damage that can have serious legacy consequences afterwards. 

By improving nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, starting from pregnancy, we can take action to prevent the physical and cognitive damage that can have serious consequences after two years of age. 

For more information read or download the 2013 Progress Report here.

Promoting practical and low-cost initiatives

The good news is that initiatives to prevent maternal and child under-nutrition are proven to be effective and practical while also being  low in financial cost. Given the important role women play in food production and in family nutrition, we ensure that programmes and initiatives pay particular attention to their needs and experience.

This is done through a combination of initiatives. This includes the promotion of breastfeeding, hygiene, good child care practices, and providing the essential vitamins and minerals necessary for good health through supplements and food fortification, and through assisting farmers to grow more nutritious food

Scaling Up Nutrition

We are supporting our partner countries to adopt these approaches through our support for the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement. SUN is a global movement, which brings together different partners (state and non-state entities), including Ireland, to adopt a common approach to tackle under-nutrition. As of February 2014 there are now 45 states participating in SUN. ‌

More nutritious food and supplements

In Cambodia, Mozambique and South Africa, we support distribution of micro-nutrient powders to rural areas. We support smallholder farmers to produce nutritious food such as potatoes, peas, beans, nuts, fruit, vegetables, livestock and poultry. For example, the peanut industry in Malawi has been re-established, and the orange-flesh sweet potato, rich in Vitamin A, is now available in Mozambique, Ethiopia and Tanzania. In Zambia, we support cash transfers to poor households together with education on nutrition to promote good eating habits. In Malawi, we support aid agencies and the Ministry of Health in the roll-out of Community Therapeutic Care programmes aimed at bringing undernourished children back to health. In Vietnam, we support the availability of fortified foods for children 6-24 months and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.  In parallel, we support national programmes to fortify sugar with vitamin A to help prevent under-nutrition.

Tackling the root causes of under-nutrition

Nutrition is a multi-faceted issue and direct interventions such as those above are a big part, but not the entirety, of  solution. So we are also addressing underlying causes of under-nutrition. These actions including providing better access to clean water and sanitation, better health and education services, and to resources. They also involve promoting the involvement of women playing an influential part in decision-making about the use of resources, social protection support and political stability. 

Read more about nutrition

Read about what we are doing to improve food and nutrition security for some of the poorest people in the world.