Health and nutrition workers teach a community about healthy eating with local produce in Masi Manimba in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How can nutrition become a higher political priority among different governments and a central element in the post-2015 development agenda? Photo by: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development / CC BY-SA

In early June, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition held a gathering for its stakeholders in Berlin, Germany. The location was fitting, since Germany had recently signaled its increased commitment to a field where — by the admission of Christiane Hieronymus, of its Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development — it had been slower to engage than other countries.

The event, which immediately preceded GAIN’s board meeting, considered two related themes. The first was how governments could make nutrition a higher political priority in their own countries, and the second was how nutrition could truly become a central element in the post-2015 development agenda.

To achieve these aims, three broad approaches were recommended. The first, in the words of GAIN Executive Director Marc Van Ameringen, was “harnessing the markets”; namely, that robust and sustained private sector involvement was essential. The second could loosely be described as “bridging the data gap”; that is to say, making available more and better data about how much money is being allocated to nutrition in government budgets, as well as thorough evaluation of the work that private companies are doing in this space. The third is what might be termed “looking beyond the health sector,” which means taking nutrition out of its normal silo, and seeing how other government departments can help in promoting its virtues.

Harnessing the markets

Van Ameringen noted that in a world where poor consumers spend over $3.5 trillion each year on food, it was vital to consider the role of the markets. Specifically, the question was how small and midsize enterprises could be encouraged to produce nutritious foods for poor people.

What was needed, he said, was new models that linked smaller farmers to markets more effectively. One other approach that had already been successful, he said, was looking at the food that companies gave their workforces. For example, there was the garment sector in Bangladesh, where a significant proportion of the workforce were women: Here, they were being provided with more nutritious food than before, both in the canteen and in the form of rations that they could take home for their families. There had also been good progress made in encouraging larger companies like Unilever to provide nutritious food for families who had workers in their supply chains.

In addition, the GAIN executive noted that while the private sector was often a cause of malnutrition, it should be part of the solution as well. He considered that further change could be achieved through regulation, giving the examples of creating and enforcing requirements for food fortification, and the recent decision of the French government that it was now illegal for grocers to waste food: Now, they either had to give it away or otherwise use it. Van Ameringen said that it was also important to provide incentives because “for a lot of companies, there’s no money to be made from poor people,” and pointed to the work that the Dutch government had done through co-financing.

Following the evening’s main event, Devex spoke with Bonnie McClafferty, GAIN’s director of agriculture and nutrition security, about what could be done to galvanize the private sector.

“There’s income to be made on nutritious foods,” she said. “If we can get the agricultural sector to actually bring up income by producing nutritious foods, and thereby lower the price, that’s one way to do it. And another way to do it is [by realizing that] farmers are producers in the food system. No industry wants their producers to be ill or undernourished. So we also need to invest in farmers as the producers of the foods themselves, and in their nutrition. Farmers are some of the most undernourished people in the world. It’s ironic, and sad.”

Bridging the data gap

Emorn Udomkesmalee, senior adviser at the Institute of Nutrition at Thailand’s Mahidol University, spoke of the “dark ages” only a few years ago when the nutrition agenda was far more poorly resourced than it is now.

Though there were still challenges, it was agreed that the publication of the Access To Nutrition Index and the Global Nutrition Report — whose findings were presented at this gathering by Lawrence Haddad, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute — had both been significant developments. Haddad called for more specific commitments in pursuit of nutrition goals, particularly with a large pledging event taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016, around the time of the Olympics. So far, he said, some of these commitments — including those around spending — were “incredibly vague.”

Haddad also said that more countries should go through a budget exercise to show how much money they were allocating to nutrition and called upon donors to be better at disclosing how much they were spending in this area.

“You can’t expect countries to do it if you don’t do it,” he said. In his view, the U.N. and the other parties to the ICN2 Framework for Action drawn up in November 2014 should identify a set of indicators to show which countries were making progress under the standards set by the Global Nutrition Report.

Mindful of the desire for greater transparency in this area, Hieronymus pointed out that Germany’s new initiative for nutrition, “One World Hunger,” was to receive one-fifth of their overall ministerial budget, some $1.4 billion.

Looking beyond the health sector

Udomkesmalee said that it was vital for people not only to see nutrition as a health sector issue, and that a holistic view was needed. She pointed to her own government, Thailand, as one that had only recently begun to see the benefits of this approach.

Wolfgang Jamann, the secretary-general of CARE International, said by working across sectors — in water, agriculture and sanitation, as well as health — the efforts of his organization were “up to 10 times as efficient.” Crucial to this, he observed, had been the alliances built by civil society organizations, particularly in conflict-affected countries where the private sector was not able to operate effectively.

Haddad saw a further opportunity in those countries whose economies were expanding and where tax revenues were on the rise.

“There’s going to be a growing demand for social welfare programs,” he told Devex. “Those are the fastest-growing programs for government spending in Africa and Asia — the safety nets, for the middle classes. We [should] get them to work for nutrition for the lower-income groups — to target women, target poorer communities.”

The IFPRI researcher pointed to one model above all that could be replicated: “Ethiopia is doing a great job. They’ve got a massive safety net program, the [Productive Safety Net Program] that reaches 6 million households. They’ve just spent the last year trying to figure out how to make it more nutrition-sensitive. This is a fantastic example,” said Haddad. “It has the potential for massive scale up. They’re already reaching all these households. The question is, can we just drop nutrition in?”

#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

  • Musa Okwonga

    Musa Okwonga is a journalist, poet, broadcaster, musician, and PR consultant currently based in Berlin, Germany. He has written for several publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, ESPN and The New York Times, and is the author of two books on football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Find out more about his work at