Developing strategies to end hunger
 

Who's Walking the Walk? Country Commitments to Fighting Malnutrition

In my last blog I mentioned that we now know what malnutrition is and what to do to overcome it. Much has been written about the “1,000-day window of opportunity,” the period from a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that malnutrition during this critical time can carry lifelong consequences for a person’s health, education and earnings. When chronic malnutrition affects a large number of people, it can even affect a country’s economy.

The better news is that interventions to prevent and treat malnutrition during the 1,000-day window are not only highly effective, but also great investments in development, with very high returns for every dollar invested. Since nutrition is an integral part of all development sectors, it is often referred to as being “cross-sectoral” in nature. It means that improving a person’s health, or education, or economic situation can have a positive, sustainable influence on malnutrition. Improving nutrition isn’t just about growing more food or having better access to food anymore.

So, if we know what malnutrition is and what actions are required to defeat it, and if we have shown that investing in nutrition is a smart thing to do, what is holding back “scaling up” nutrition on a global scale?  The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement now includes 35 countries, all with high levels of malnutrition. Even though some SUN members are among the poorest countries in the world, every SUN country has committed political and financial resources to take action against malnutrition. Could it be that a country’s commitment to fighting hunger and malnutrition is what is important?

What if an index of a country’s commitment was available to help measure and motivate concerted action?  The Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom, along with the British and Irish aid agencies, has produced just such an index, called the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI). Last year, the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) noted in its Global Hunger Index that in recent years, progress in reducing hunger has been “worryingly slow.” The report found that in many developing countries, significant economic growth has not necessarily led to lower levels of malnutrition and hunger. Rather, a driving factor in making (or not making) progress on malnutrition seems to be a government’s political will (or lack thereof).

The Global Hunger Index treats efforts to reduce hunger and to reduce malnutrition as separate issues. Hunger is a key driver of migration, conflict, and gender discrimination. Malnutrition, the report found, can have different causes and consequences. It does not always come directly from hunger. One example of another cause is an impaired ability to absorb vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) due to disease.

So which countries are doing well according to the HANCI?  The results indicate that Guatemala ranks at the top and Guinea Bissau (a small West African nation) at the bottom. The index provides an interesting set of information graphics that can be studied. Guatemala has made a substantial political commitment to improving access to clean drinking water, ensuring improved sanitation, promoting complementary feeding practices, and investing in health interventions. I’ve blogged previously about its “Zero Hunger Plan.” Guinea Bissau, on the other hand, has a low ranking because it has failed to invest in agriculture, leaving women in particular vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition; in addition, the country has not yet developed effective safety nets that can provide its citizens with a measure of food security.

In recent years, we’ve seen a truly incredible level of global momentum on nutrition. But how are the major donors doing when it comes to following through on their political commitments to ending hunger and malnutrition?  Where would the United States, Canada, Australia, and the EU rank on the HANCI? Do these governments endorse policies and provide funding for programs that augment the efforts of the developing countries most affected by hunger, chronic food insecurity, and malnutrition?

A series of events in June 2013 will help answer these questions, indicating whether donor governments are “walking the walk” -- or just talking -- about their commitment to nutrition.

First, in London on June 8, the U.K. government will host the “Nutrition for Growth” event, during which governments will pledge specific monetary amounts to help scale up nutrition. Following this, during Bread’s National Gathering, we are hosting an event in Washington, DC, called “Sustaining Political Commitments to Scaling Up Nutrition, to build on our very successful 2011 event. The Call to Action will bring 40 civil society representatives from SUN countries to discuss SUN’s next steps -- and what’s needed to carry them out -- with U.S. government officials, non-governmental organization nutrition stakeholders, and others, including Bread’s grassroots activists who will be in Washington, DC, for the National Gathering. Participants will be able to judge for themselves whether the U.S. government is “walking the walk” on its commitment to ending malnutrition, particularly among women and children.

Stay tuned to this space and the Bread for the World blog for more information. Scott Bleggi

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