A tipping point for MNCH and nutrition? Reflections on an UN-usual General Assembly

A Nigerian woman and her baby. The newly announced Global Financing Facility supports global the efforts to improve the health and quality of life of women, adolescents and children living in low to middle income countries. Photo by: Micronutrient Initiative

Last week, I joined development colleagues from around the globe in New York for activities surrounding the 69th U.N. General Assembly, where leaders discussed urgent global issues. While ISIS in the Middle East and the terrifying Ebola outbreak in West Africa were understandably forefront in people’s minds and in media headlines, I am proud that Canada also continued to champion another critical issue: saving millions of women and children who would otherwise die of completely preventable causes.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Every Woman, Every Child event saw Canada, Norway and the United States mobilize more than $4 billion for a Global Financing Facility set up by the World Bank with the goal of saving and improving the lives of women and children as well as accelerating progress to achieve the health Millennium Development Goals before the end of 2015.

Fighting malnutrition will be essential to meet that goal. Last year, 6.3 million children died of preventable causes. Almost half of those deaths were related to undernutrition. For those children who survive, millions live with that bright spark of potential dimmed due to malnutrition’s ravaging effects. It is unconscionable that 162 million children in the world today suffer from stunting — permanently damaged and weakened for life — because they didn’t get the nutrition many of us take for granted as we raise our own children. The scale of malnutrition and its particular impact on the most vulnerable segments of society globally is one of the ugliest symptoms of injustice and inequity that exist in the world today. We can and must do more to change this.

That’s why at the Every Woman, Every Child event, I felt a strong sense of optimism that the momentum we are witnessing in efforts to transform the status quo for millions of people is reaching a tipping point. Not only are we seeing a growing, high-level consensus on this issue, but increasingly we’re also seeing the leadership being backed up by resources — and strategies — for achieving an end to preventable deaths among women and children.

Canada is one of the world’s leading donors to nutrition, seeing it as an essential component of maternal, newborn and child health. In May of this year, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper convened a global summit in Toronto called ‘Saving Every Woman, Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach’ and announced $3.5 billion to support these efforts, firmly embedding nutrition as a key pillar of MNCH programs. Along with critical allies like the United Kingdom, the U.S. and others, a greater alignment of purpose, direction, and action with broad-based support is building. When allies work together — and when government, civil society and citizens can agree on the importance of specific action — great things are possible.

Supporting MNCH and nutrition is an important issue not only for governments but for citizens as well. For example, just last week, an Ipsos Reid poll found that 82 percent of Canadians feel “it’s important to them personally that Canada helps improve child and maternal health in developing countries.” I have no doubt that many citizens in other countries working toward a better and more just world feel the same in their contexts.

The establishment of the Global Financing Facility, dedicated to maternal, newborn and child health, is a testament to the impact of leadership and the power of aligned values expressed through joint action and commitment. It is further evidence of the growing determination to move the global discussion about women and children from “talk” to “action” and to keep it high on the global agenda. That is something to be inspired by, and a cause for optimism and renewed determination. An UN-usual General Assembly.

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About the author

  • Joel Spicer

    Joel Spicer is president of the Micronutrient Initiative. An established leader in global health, he previously worked for the now-defunct Canadian aid agency CIDA, the World Bank, WHO and UNICEF as well as the Stop TB Partnership. Spicer is a seasoned expert on nutrition, maternal and child health, TB control, HIV programming, innovative financing and resource mobilization.