A novel method of tracking nutrition-sensitive spending

Women prepare a mixture for feeding malnourished children as well as pregnant and lactating women at the Abu Shouk camp for internally displaced persons in North Darfur, Sudan. How much are donors actually spending on nutrition? Photo by: Albert González Farran / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Nutrition figures prominently in the just-adopted post-2015 goals. The goal: End all forms of malnutrition by 2030.

But getting there requires investments, both specific to nutrition and those that address the underlying causes of malnutrition, such as food availability and accessibility, maternal health especially during pregnancy, and proper water and sanitation facilities.

There is limited evidence, however, to show where and to what extent these investments are being made. There is collated information at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s creditor reporting system, but the data are based only on what OECD’s Development Assistance Committee donors report. One would need specific information — especially disaggregated data — to capture all nutrition-related investments, not just those reported by donors.

An international nutrition and epidemiology professor at the College of William and Mary, and two members of the AidData team sought to capture these nutrition-sensitive aid information by developing a methodology that classifies and allows them to track these “nutrition-sensitive” aid flows. The initiative is done in collaboration with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and the Scaling Up Nutrition Donor Network.

What they did is list relevant purpose codes — essentially those that correspond to development sectors that can be linked to nutrition, such as agriculture, food security programs, humanitarian and emergency relief, basic health care, basic drinking water supply and basic sanitation — in the CRS database, based on UNICEF’s framework on maternal and child undernutrition, and in consultation with DFATD.

To ensure nothing is left out, they also searched for nutrition-relevant keywords in the database, such as deworming, ready-to-use therapeutic food, supplement, vitamin and zinc.

All information is limited to year 2010.

Projects that fall within at least one purpose code, or have one of the keywords in the program description are taken as having nutrition-sensitive components — at least initially. Later on, the methodology was revised to include only projects that have at least one purpose code and contain a keyword in the revised list of keywords, which no longer include general terms such as “nutrition” or “supplement.”

The list of projects was further whittled down to include only those that meet one of these three criteria: nutrition as the main stated objective or goal, nutrition results are “explicit indicators” of the project’s success, or there is an explicit mention of expected outcomes, such as improved nutrition or to reduce undernutrition or malnutrition.

The “nutrition weighted amount” assigned to each activity or transaction depends on its level of “nutrition sensitivity.” The working paper however provided no example on how this was done.


Based on the methodology they employed, data show that more nutrition aid is invested in nutrition-sensitive interventions ($1.79 billion) than nutrition-specific ones ($379.4 million). But it is difficult to determine the geographic breakdown for a large portion of these investments, as many are meant for regional interventions or for a wide set of countries.

This is not necessarily a “negative thing” in terms of aid effectiveness, according to Rachel Trichler, one of the report’s authors who is a senior program manager and monitoring and evaluation specialist at AidData.

“But it does make it more difficult to track [nutrition-sensitive investments],” she told Devex.

Any difference meanwhile between nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive spending depends very much on donors and their program classifications and descriptions, though it doesn’t surprise the data expert that more aid is channeled through projects with nutrition components that fall within a large pool of sectors.

But she did say that the more specific information donors provide on their project activities, “the better.”

“We looked at some projects where the longest description of activities was ‘Emergency Food Aid’ or something similarly broad and generic,” Trichler explained. “It’s possible that project provides fortified biscuits to help combat malnutrition among children, which is certainly nutrition sensitive, but we can’t tell from that description.”

It would have been easier had donors thought of including words such as “fortification,” “supplementation” or “fortified biscuits” in the project described above. In projects identified under water and sanitation, for example, donors could add description phrases, such as “increased water service connection for potable water for reduction of diarrhea.”

But some donors only provide limited information in the CRS database. Given the methodology, this makes it difficult to capture their project’s nutrition sensitivity. Trichler said they found this for U.K. Department for International Development programs in particular: They found more nutrition-sensitive funding in the aid agency’s project documents than in DfID’s project descriptions in the CRS database.


The data, based on the methodology, also showed which countries are receiving more nutrition-sensitive funding. But Trichler cautioned against making conclusions as to how donors determine who receives more and less nutrition-sensitive investments.

In the data for example, India received less than $100 million despite having a larger portion of its population suffering from stunted growth. Ethiopia, which has a relatively small population suffering the same fate, meanwhile received more than $150 million.

Trichler however stressed that the aid flows examined were only for 2010.

“Many aid projects span multiple years. It’s possible that if we looked at the totals over 5 years, the results could be quite different. There’s a lot that we could learn by applying this same methodology to multiple years of spending and examining the patterns,” she said.

What’s novel is the authors’ efforts to capture the full picture of nutrition aid spending, and in a structured manner, although their methodology is still heavily reliant on data provided by donors.

The team doesn’t have any concrete plans at the moment to continue tracking nutrition spending — although donors involved in the SUN movement are continuing to pursue this — but Trichler said they are looking into whether the same methodology might also be applicable to other sectors or development issues.

“We have a few ideas that may come to fruition. For example, could we use a similar methodology to track funding for the new sustainable development goals?” she concluded.

#FutureFortified is a special online series exploring the impact and importance of food fortification to meet global development objectives. Join Devex — and our partner GAIN — in the conversation using #FutureFortified.

About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.