The multiple burden of malnutrition - It does not have to be this way!

The multiple burden of malnutrition - It does not have to be this way!
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Over the past year or so the world economy has been booming with higher returns from the markets. This is seen by many as a sign of growth and prosperity. However whilst the markets were booming, at the same time the number of people going to bed hungry has increased from 775 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2017. A significant number of children continue to struggle. Their right to life and dignity was at stake. Many of them were not sure if they would see their first, second or third birthday. While at the same time, the number of children that are stunted - in which their physical and cognitive growth are hindered -fails to drop. Whilst economic progress is key for prosperity and some world leaders have celebrated this progress as success, the nutrition statics bring home a sobering truth of an unequal world.

Over the weekend, the Global Nutrition Report (GNR) for 2017 was launched in Milan at the Global Nutrition Summit. The report draws attention to the scale of the problem when it comes to nutrition, but at the same time identifies a unique opportunity within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs to address the issue in a time bound fashion. It calls for urgent and integrated action across thematic silos.

Continuing with my analogy of financial investments, imagine if an investor told you that for every $1 you invest, you would get $16 in return, would you ignore this offer? Not really ! However, this is exactly what many governments are doing. They are ignoring the offer and continuing to invest in other areas where they would get similar results. . For every $1 invested in improving nutrition through an integrated approach, the return is $16 in terms of economic gain. Investment starts at the family or household level in order to break the vicious and intergenerational cycle. A pregnant woman needs to have the right nourishments to give birth to a healthy child. The mother and child need clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene conditions in order to prevent infections, which hinder the absorption of nutrients from food. This is of paramount importance in the first 1000 days from conception until the child turns two. After this window, the damage caused by malnutrition is lifelong. Such conditions will give the child a healthy start, both for their physical and cognitive ability. The same child then moves on, with other enablers to become an adult who contributes to human development, gross domestic product (GDP) and the society.

You may say this is all common sense, simple and straightforward. Yes it is indeed but not for many political leaders. The hunger statistics are going in the wrong direction. We have 1 out of every 3 people who are malnourished, 155 million children who are stunted, 55 million wasted and 41 million overweight. The impact of droughts, climate change, conflict and severe food insecurity is not making this any better. No country is on target to reduce anaemia among women of reproductive age. Progress on exclusive breastfeeding is slow with a marginal increase of 2%.

The root of the problem lies in the lack of political leadership and accountability. The duty to protect life and address conditions that prevent individuals from enjoying their right to life with dignity lies with the state. Our political leaders and those who advise them need to take a hard look if their plans and actions, or lack of it, are directly or indirectly falling short of respecting and protecting the right to life and dignity. The primary responsibility of addressing the issue lie with the duty bearers.

Even with this stark reality, not all is lost and there is a pathway out of the current crisis. The opportunity for change, urgent action and transformation is knocking on doors of political leaders across the world. This was reflected two years ago when the SDGs were adopted by our political leaders in New York. The GNR identify five core areas, which run through the SDGs, which can contribute to and benefit from nutrition. These are; sustainable food production, and a strong infrastructure for water and sanitation, Health systems (young child feeding, supplementation, nutrition counselling etc), equity and inclusion, and peace and stability. If due attention if given to these areas, it will unleash the full potential which exists in delivering the SDGs.

The Global Nutrition Summit in Milan had some rays of hope. Governments, donors and philanthropic foundations made financial commitments of USD 3.4 million to end malnutrition. This included USD 640 million of new money from Philanthropic Foundations from Asia, Africa, North America and Europe. Seven governments made their own commitments to end malnutrition. These commitments and many other ongoing initiatives are a step in the right direction. However, they will not be sufficient to address the scale of the challenge of the malnutrition crisis,

Without undermining the role of finances in addressing this challenge, additional money must go hand in hand with political leadership. Political leaders need to make their own commitments and support political champions to translate those commitments to actions, including financial, institutional, and trained human resources. Governments also need to recognise the importance of civil society not only as providers of technical support or service delivery but also as agents of change. Civil society along with other national institutors needs need to strengthen people and their organisations (Community Based Organisations) in monitoring progress, supporting and holding duty bearers to account. They will hold government’s feet to the fire and advocate for change.

Unfortunately, time is not on our side. If leaders, governments and non-state actors are serious to address this issue, they will have to put all hands on deck and act with a sense of urgency. If they continue to ignore the crisis, the warning comes from none other than the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Milan summit “A child stunted, will stunt entire societies, if this is not addressed”

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