Global Approaches to Tackling Malnutrition with National Level Impact

by | October 18, 2012

It is estimated that around 165 million children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. Chronic malnourishment is a term that captures the effects of the persistent, pervasive and long-term poor nutritional status of a child, typically measured by a low height-for-age indicator called stunting. Chronic malnourishment has a devastating impact on a child. It hinders both their physical and intellectual development and can lead to irreversible damage in life. Simply put, a child who is chronically malnourished, particularly in the first two years of life, will never reach their full potential. This point is worth lingering on for a minute. When we hear statistics about chronic malnutrition it is important to fully grasp the enormous human, and indeed economic, costs that lie behind these numbers.

CGSD’s Glenn Denning discusses the challenges and opportunities in tackling malnutrition with local NGO “HIAM Health” in Timor-Leste

Despite nutrition’s seemingly obvious importance to development, the issue of nutrition had traditionally been neglected in development planning. It has been referred to as development’s “Achilles heel”; “the hidden scourge” and as “an administrative and institutional orphan”. Given the multi-causal nature of malnutrition, it is an issue that has tended to slip between the cracks between sectors and governments’ ministries, receiving inadequate attention and financial resources.

Thankfully however, things are starting to change. Over the last few years there has been growing momentum around the issue with a range of high-level initiatives and movements taking shape, including the Scaling Up Nutrition (or SUN) movement, USAID’s Feed the Future, and the 1000 days initiative.

Last month in New York it was pleasantly difficult to keeping track of all of the nutrition related events. Nutrition commitments were pledged at the Clinton Global Initiative, there were numerous nutrition related side events at the UN and we saw the second annual high-level Scaling up Nutrition event. Importantly, in all of these discussions the need for multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches was consistently raised, as was the need for strong, high-level political commitment and ownership of the issue.

The value of some of these global nutrition initiatives was really brought home to me earlier this summer when I traveled to Timor-Leste with Professor Glenn Denning from CGSD. In the last 10 years Timor-Leste has achieved a remarkable decade of nation building, and the country has made great strides improving key child and maternal health indicators including child mortality rates as well as lowering the incidence of diseases such as TB and malaria. Yet stunting rates for the country remain stubbornly high. During our visit we met with a series of different stakeholders, ranging from UN agencies to small NGOs, as well as donors and key decision makers. Everyone we met with was aware of the nutrition problem and was eagerly committed to play a role in reversing the trend. What was needed however was a “big picture” vision of how activities and programs across different sectors can be brought together to achieve real impact at the national scale.

Here is where movements like SUN prove to be incredibly useful. Conversations about tackling malnutrition take a different turn when you can point to countries like Nepal, Peru and Guatemala who face similar malnutrition burdens but have publicly committed to prioritizing nutrition both politically and financially, with actionable national level nutrition strategies. In all of our work at CGSD we strive to bring best practices and multi-sectoral, evidence-based solutions to policy planners and decision makers in countries like Timor-Leste. Whilst still in its early days, new movements like SUN can further bridge that link between science and impact by showcasing other countries’ real time progress and actions, by creating a public dialogue for best practices and by connecting experts, stakeholders and decision makers around the world.

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