In global health and development, the nature of change tends to be incremental. The way we do things, the way we approach challenges—even how we think about particular issues, rarely changes quickly. This is particularly true when the challenges are perceived to be entrenched, unavoidable—or just too complex to change.
This is why I am inspired by the global progress in addressing malnutrition in just the past two years. We all realized that a new approach was needed —and that even one of the world’s largest challenges could be less daunting when taken on collectively. In a short period of time, we’ve succeeded in creating a new nutrition paradigm. Now it is time to translate this new approach into measurable successes in reducing malnutrition and its lifelong consequences.
The research is clear—the 1,000 days of a mother’s pregnancy until her child’s 2nd birthday is a critical window of opportunity for nutrition. Poor nutrition during this time can irreversibly stunt growth and development, whereas good nutrition gives children a healthy start at life.
This isn’t just about feeding children today, it is about nourishing a stronger future for years to come. The Lancet medical journal recently published a Series on Maternal and Child Nutrition, showing that improving nutrition not only saves lives, but it also makes lives better. Young children that receive proper nutrition achieve more in school, earn more as adults and are able to contribute to their families and communities. These stronger communities support thriving nations and economies—helping to break an intergenerational cycle of poverty that has trapped too many for too long.
Following on the release of The Lancet Series, heads of state from around the globe, including many in the developing world, the G8 and G20; businesses; UN leaders; and others, including one of our co-chairs, Bill Gates, committed to build on this new evidence with an investment in nutrition. At the Nutrition for Growth event, hosted in London by the governments of the UK, Brazil and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, supporters came together to commit over $4 billion to nutrition efforts that help individuals, communities and nations grow and develop to their full potential.
What we are seeing is a global movement calling for change and making an impact. Much of this progress has been driven by the countries, organizations and leaders committed to the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. Launched just 1,000 days ago at the UN General Assembly, SUN brings stakeholders together across sectors to collaborate and coordinate efforts. We are already seeing progress as the 40 SUN countries establish and implement national nutrition plans; commit to ambitious goals and measurable targets; and invest domestic resources to improve nutrition.
This country-led approach is also a key element of the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact announced at the Nutrition for Growth event. In addition to committing unprecedented resources to nutrition, through the Compact global leaders also commit to allocating these resources to support science-based efforts that advance national nutrition goals. The 90 entities that signed the Compact, including 24 governments and 28 businesses, pledged to work together to meet global nutrition targets—and to be held accountable to their commitments.
By working together, we can alleviate malnutrition. This global movement is not about all of us doing the same thing—it is about each of us doing our part, building on progress and contributing to a shared goal and vision—improved nutrition for children, women and families.
This goal is in reach because we know what works and how to make a difference and we are working together in a far more coordinated way than ever before. Many factors affect nutritional status, creating many opportunities to work toward improvement. Through continued research and innovation, we can more effectively support healthy growth, including support for breastfeeding mothers.
There are also opportunities to address the underlying causes of malnutrition by increasing the nutritional impact of agricultural investments; expanding access to sanitation and safe water; and prioritizing healthcare and education for women before, during and after their pregnancies.
Information and resources now have to be put to work to keep us moving forward. When endorsing the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact, Brazil pledged to host a follow-up to the Nutrition for Growth event 1,000 days from now in Rio to measure progress. Just as nutrition can change a life in 1,000 days, we can change millions of lives by committing to nutrition over the next 1,000 days. With the Global Nutrition for Growth Compact, we have our “Road to Rio,” and we are already moving in the right direction.
Ellen Piwoz is a Senior Program Officer in the Family Health division of the Global Development Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her work is predominantly focused on research, integrated strategies, and strategic alliances to improve nutrition in women and children in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.