Photo by: Rayner Peña.
We’ve all heard, at least once, the scream of the gut echoing on an empty stomach, a thunder of hunger that breaks the silence of the closed mouth. For most of our readers, the roar is due to harmless neglect: skipping lunchtime to finish a project, or getting up late and not having time for breakfast. For 56.9% of children surveyed by NGO Caritas Venezuela in 2018, though, that thunder means a storm—up to the point where the cheap mango sold on the street (or even hanging on trees) is now dubbed the “stomach silencer”.
Carita’s report confirms and expands on what the National Survey of Living Conditions (Encovi, made by an alliance of several universities) has been collecting since 2013. Both surveys record significant increases in crisis indicators. If we take into account that within the general population, in 2019, we could have a third of our child malnourished—enough to declare a famine, according to World Health Organization parameters—and considering how childhood malnutrition is associated with a long-term cognitive lag, can we say that Venezuela’s future will carry a “dead weight”?
Several factors define the long-term impact that this could have and we must foresee how politics and society will understand this “cognitive lag”, even if it’s inevitable.
Considering how childhood malnutrition is associated with a long-term cognitive lag, can we say that Venezuela’s future will carry a “dead weight”?
Academics indeed believe that child malnutrition during the first two years of a child’s life—known as the “critical period”—correlates with a cognitive impediment in adulthood, apparently irreversible due to an underdevelopment of the brain, an invisible scar of malnutrition.
The consequences this will have for Venezuela’s day after are not easy to predict. To estimate the future, we shall examine similar situations in the past and consider various studies.
The famine in the Netherlands at the end of World War II (between 1944 and 1945), for example, produced no (measurable) cognitive lags in the affected children. If there was an effect, it was overcome. Of course, this crisis was not entirely similar to Venezuela’s, neither in intensity nor in duration. Also, the political institutions and overall development seem to have contributed to mitigating the long-term effects of the Dutch famine. This case does teach something important, though: the cognitive lag could be reversible.
In Ghana, a developing country, there was a famine between 1982 and 1984. Based on available data on IQ tests, a study by Impaq International and the University of North Dakota measured the impact that child malnutrition had on its victims’ cognitive development fifteen years after the famine: children between the ages of 0 and 2 at the time had a 6% IQ deficit; in the sample studied, on average, there was a full-year schooling lag in their English and Math tests. If that happened in Venezuela, our current malnutrition crisis could aggravate the existing schooling lag already reported by the 2018 Encovi.
This case does teach something important, though: the cognitive lag could be reversible.
As we’ve noted, results vary dramatically between countries, and there seems to be no direct equation between malnutrition and brain development that inevitably leads to cognitive lag. For example, a transnational study led by a collaboration of nutritional scientists, published in The Lancet—one of the most prestigious academic journals in medicine—notes that, regarding the cognitive development of young children, nutrition is just one of the factors to be considered. This research analyzed the literature on developing countries and noted that gender inequality, low maternal education, reduced access to services in combination with biological and psychosocial risks of violence and depression, lead to impaired child development.
These three papers show the complexity of predicting the future impact of childhood malnutrition and the extent of the cognitive lag. Since it’s a multidimensional challenge, cognitive development is interwoven with the general socioeconomic conditions. Hence, we must also consider the situation of social marginality that amplifies the effects of famine in Venezuela, including how society imagines our marginalized communities.
The ‘Slum Mentality’ & Poverty
According to Encovi 2017, at least two-thirds of Venezuela live in multidimensional poverty. That is, a precariousness not just of income but also of housing, work and educational conditions, among other factors. This vulnerability acts as an enhancer of the effects of child famine.
But it’s even more important to pay attention to how we collectively understand (and mostly, imagine) the situation of economic precariousness.
But it’s even more important to pay attention to how we collectively understand (and mostly, imagine) the situation of economic precariousness: the active exclusion of the structurally poor sectors by the most fortunate segments of society. We must pay attention to how Venezuelans think and act towards slum-dwellers, and thus facilitate or hinder their opportunities for development. We’re talking about internal aporophobia.
Consider, for example, the famous expression of el rancho en la cabeza, akin to the “slum mentality,” a deprecation that holds the vulnerable responsible for their deficiencies and dismisses all social responsibility for the structural disadvantages of their circumstance.
Now that derogatory arguments based on skin color are considered unacceptable, the “culture of poverty” has taken the half-empty chair of racism to disqualify those living on the margins of society. But the underlying theme remains: the idea of a fundamental difference between citizens.
With this kind of expression, we ignore that poverty is primarily a consequence of public policy, economic environment and structural factors that hinder social mobility. By stating that it is a problem of their culture, or that their problem is in “their head,” we comfortably wash our hands and reject shared responsibility, despite how “culture,” even in its academic meaning, doesn’t operate in a vacuum.
Now that derogatory arguments based on skin color are considered unacceptable, the “culture of poverty” has taken the half-empty chair of racism.
If in our near future, expressions like the “slum mentality” mix with conceptions like “dead weight,” we run the risk of some sectors alluding to the alleged and inevitable cognitive lag of some Venezuelans to justify inequalities that aren’t natural, nor an inevitable destination for the poorest, relieving the more privileged of their part in the solution.
With these expressions, you stop seeing the other as an agent and conceive him at most as a pre-condemned victim. If the damage is irreversible, then there’s no need to invest in public feeding programs, as in fact, it was exclaimed in many discussions on social media when commenting on food policies of the National Assembly’s agenda for relaunching the national economy, Plan País. There is, in the hexagons of Twitter, a significant group of users describing such food plans as “socialism” and “chavismo”.
There will also be those who argue that investing in the public education system is just not worth it; if precarity is about the “slum mentality”, then there will be no apparent reason to improve the excruciating conditions in which the most vulnerable live. No need to implement food policies for “48% who are not able to buy food without a direct subsidy,” as Venezuelan sociologist Luis Pedro España pointed out in the Plan País presentation.
Our remaining options would be to annihilate and survey—as Maduro’s regime has with its literal war against the poor, the Operación de Liberación del Pueblo.
To consider the vulnerable as “dead weight” depends on how we, as a society, understand what this famine means, both scientifically and socially.
To consider the vulnerable as “dead weight” depends on how we, as a society, understand what this famine means, both scientifically and socially, and what the role of our citizen action is. That is, our responsibility to our country and people (who are not numbers or percentages).
We must remember, as pointed out by both Nobel Prize in Economics Amartya Sen and philosopher Michel Foucault, that hunger has a political component. As Sen would say in Development as Freedom, “There are no famines in functional democracies.”
If we, as a society, interpret the consequences of the famine as the creation of an inevitable “dead weight,” then we are enabling the conditions to create a dead weight and we’ll end up transforming artificial differences into insurmountable biological differences.
We’ll self-fulfil our prophecy.