From Promise to Impact: Nutrition and the Opportunity on Early Childhood Development

The 2016 Global Nutrition Report -- From Promise to Impact -- has launched. The report is in-depth, weighty, and backed by some of the best researchers and practitioners in the nutrition field. The title hints at the shift that these leaders would most like to see -- the actual delivery of existing commitments as well as increased evidence-based action and investment to enable millions of lives saved and sustainable, inclusive economic growth for all.

It's a big agenda and requires strong global nutrition and early childhood development (ECD) champions from all sectors to lead the way.

One such champion -- African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina -- opened the 2016 Annual Meeting by asking heads of state to take a bold step forward together to tackle malnutrition reminding them that, "When the growth of our children is stunted today, the growth of our economies will be stunted tomorrow. But when Africa's children are nourished and can grow, learn, and earn to their full potential, we will be able to unleash the potential of the entire continent."

President Adesina has joined forces with other champions: Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and John Kufuor, former President of Ghana to launch the African Leaders for Nutrition. This powerful new group will be critically important to create the necessary political momentum to end malnutrition and provide the best start for all children across Africa.

This kind of leadership is sorely needed. Last week marked the three year anniversary of the Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit, hosted in London, where more than $4 billion in nutrition-specific (and $19 billion in nutrition-sensitive) pledges were made. Not all of those pledges have been delivered.

Even if all pledges had been delivered, however, it would still not be enough to meet the global nutrition targets, agreed by 194 countries (and now enshrined in SDG2) or the even more ambitious targets for African nations in 2014's Malabo Declaration.

Investments Needed

Research released in April of this year shows it will take an average of an additional $7 billion per year for the next decade from national governments, donors, the private sector, households, and innovating financing mechanisms to reach the global nutrition targets.

These resources are significant -- a significantly smart investment. New analysis just released also provides increasingly compelling case that investing in malnutrition is good for the economy. Malnutrition currently costs African nations between 3% and 16% of annual GDP, however a 40% reduction in severe malnutrition (stunting) would result in combined national income growth of $83 billion or more. In Africa, every $1 invested in interventions to prevent stunting has roughly $16 in economic returns. On the other hand, sub-optimal breastfeeding practices alone currently cost the global economy $302 billion each year because children do not grow to their full cognitive and physical potential.

In human terms on a global scale, the projected impacts of needed investments would mean:

  • at least 65 million fewer children stunted and able to reach their full potential
  • 105 million more children exclusively breastfed for the first six months after birth
  • 65 million fewer women suffering from the impacts of anemia in 2025
  • and at least 3.7 million child lives saved

How do we get there?

In April, at the World Bank event 'Early Childhood Development: A Smart Beginning for Economies on the Rise' World Bank President Jim Kim spoke passionately about the challenges we face. Kim argued that one of the biggest obstacles to a better, more just world "is our collective failure to help parents provide adequate nutrition, safe environments and sufficient stimulation to their children during the first 1,000 days of their lives."

Kim then challenged leaders to do more on nutrition and the entire package of early childhood development interventions, remarking that the climate change meetings in Paris "...forced action on a historic political agreement to tackle climate change' and that 'the world needs a 'Paris moment' on early childhood development to force the kind of urgent global action and accountability commensurate with the crisis."

Kim invited Ministers of Finance from around the world to join him for this 'moment' at the World Bank Annual Meetings in early October 2016.

What needs to happen in October 2016?

Real commitments.

Evidence-based, impact-driven policy and financial commitments should be a feature of the October moment, and Ministers should show up ready to take action on nutrition and the full package of early childhood development interventions.

There may be a temptation for the summit to focus more narrowly on nutrition, but nutrition, child health and education experts and advocates must insist on not just the goal of ending stunting, but a holistic early childhood development revolution so that all children will have what they need for the best start in life -- a fair start.

Lifesaving nutrition interventions are made more effective by early childhood development efforts such as care and stimulation for young minds (including pre-primary education), and child health interventions. Just as we know ending stunting is about reaching adolescent girls, pregnant women, and infants with pro-nutrition programs, we also know that the intergenerational cycle of stunting is heavily impacted by access to education (especially early education) particularly for girls.

Nothing short of the ambition to use absolutely all the tools we have to interrupt stunting should be our goal in October and beyond.

As Dr. Kim put it, "The time has come to treat stunting as a development and an economic emergency. We must end childhood stunting and promote optimal development of young children through delivering universal access to ECD services as quickly as possible."