End malnutrition now

Monday, 3 June 2013 17:06 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The international community has decided at last to get serious about nutrition

The world community has decided, at last, to get serious about nutrition. That is the big message coming from national leaders and nutrition experts who will participate in the “Nutrition for Growth” meeting convened by the UK and Brazilian governments to be hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron in London on June 8.

Why nutrition? And why now? The short answer is that ending hunger and malnutrition within a generation is centrally connected to everything else we seek to achieve in development. And it is feasible because it soon pays for itself with ample dividends.

Malnutrition, especially micronutrient (minerals and vitamins) deficiencies, exposes people to avoidable health risks, and prevents their full physical and intellectual development. This causes them to perform poorly in school and makes it harder to get decent work or to sustain families. In other words, undernourishment breeds poverty. Hence, ending such malnutrition is essential for ending the vicious cycle between poverty and undernourishment.

Undernourishment has many causes, and some have little to do with food per se. One leading cause of undernourishment, especially in very young children, for example, is the severe dehydration and illnesses due to drinking unsafe water. While returning to traditional diets is often no longer an option for most people, most transitions to contemporary food practices have often not led to superior nutrition outcomes.

While women are often denied a say in their households, farms and communities, empowering women is central to making real progress in overcoming malnutrition as they are typically principally responsible for care work, including making dietary decisions for households. Their children face serious and lasting consequences—the so-called double burden of childhood deprivation and life-long impairment.

So, where do we start? Ending hunger and malnutrition is an obligation of national governments. Nationally developed plans and policies, backed by adequate  budgetary resources, are vital. Helping governments to spend more efficiently is vital, especially when governments have little cash to spare.

Empowering the beneficiaries of public assistance to become agents of their own future is key. And involving those who farm or fish, other business people, civil society, foundations, philanthropies, scientists and experts in robust governance arrangements that institutionalise transparency and mutual accountability is the best way to ensure that public funds and other resources are used wisely.

The Zero Hunger Challenge issued by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at Rio last June seeks to end hunger, ensure agriculture is sustainable, eliminate child stunting, eliminate farmer poverty and minimise food waste and losses. His challenge was to governments and civil society, including business and experts, to join forces and build alliances around this cluster of issues.

A challenge this big can only be met by recognising the opportunities for enabling change through concerted efforts, through new partnerships, and, above all, by unleashing the creative powers of societies. This vision has been confirmed as a large and rapidly growing number of world leaders have responded with commitments—and with national financial resources—to develop their own nationally and regionally coordinated campaigns to end hunger and undernutrition.

In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the groundwork has been laid by initiatives such as the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and its Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP). NEPAD countries are challenging international agencies, civil society, business and research institutions to align programs around their goals. This is as it should be.

International assistance has a critical role to play, even in a world where government technical, scientific and financial resources pale in comparison to those available outside of government. Today, the role of governments and the use of public funds is less to pay, and more to catalyse, enable and channel action by others. In other words, it is to lead.

The “Nutrition for Growth” meeting is an important milestone in influencing the course of public action. It has elevated the focus of world attention on nutrition and has mobilized actors from two vital sectors—business and science—who need to be brought more fully into public action. Scientists and businesses  can work with governments, civil society and the UN, through the reformed Committee on World Food Security and the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.

Prime Minister Cameron has correctly argued that a critical dimension of success lies in securing, for the poor, the capacities and the power to chart their own destiny. Seen in this way, the broad measures that have been proposed to end malnutrition also serve to end extreme poverty and to empower women.