How the EU stepped up its game on nutrition

EuropeAid funds programs, projects and actions all over the world that deal with sustainable and equitable food security measures. It is also a strong supporter of the global Scaling Up Nutrition movement, which aims to improve nutrition through a collective effort. Photo by: Alex Peña / EuropeAid

Over the years, my work for EuropeAid has often taken me to countries experiencing a high rate of chronic undernutrition — or stunting — among their child population.

I have to admit I was frequently blinkered to that terrible reality. I did not fully understand the profound importance of undernutrition to the human and economic development of countries; I did not see it as anything more than a manifestation of chronic hunger; and, most importantly, I relied on the false assumption that economic growth and food production would eradicate undernutrition.

Unfortunately, this mindset also prevailed among much of the international community. The tragedy of stunting, which causes the death of more than three million children per year, was typically overlooked; there was no strong leadership to help define an international agenda on improving the nutritional status of children around the globe, and the international development community was not well organized enough to deal with undernutrition. More bluntly, it was dysfunctional.

The global food price crisis came as a shock to us all, and we realized all too painfully how interconnected and interdependent our global food security truly is. Then, from around 2008, the European Union began to sit up and take notice — and to take action, becoming a leading voice in the call for an increased focus on nutrition as a central concern in bringing about sustainable and equitable food security for all.

A period of transition

But first, though, we needed to transform the way we deal with nutrition internationally, transitioning from an uncoordinated mass of stakeholders and structures to a system that could bring about improvement and growth — of children and nations alike.

Part of the solution came in the design and launch of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement. The EU was a strong supporter of SUN, which was set up to bring together key players — everyone from governments and NGOs, to the business community and academics — to work together in a collective effort to improve nutrition.

Part of the solution also came in the form of a significant shift within the EU itself. EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, for example, has become a prominent and progressive global nutrition champion. In 2012, the EU made the unprecedented commitment of supporting partner countries to bring about the reduction in the number of stunted children worldwide by seven million by 2025, and in 2013 Brussels pledged to spend €3.5 billion ($4.71 billion) to bring about that reduction.

But perhaps the most important part of the solution has been the growing interest from countries placing nutrition higher up on their agendas. Indeed, undernutrition has become a political issue and it requires a multitude of actions and actors to combat its worst effects.

Monitoring and accountability

The rhetoric certainly sounds very encouraging — but if we are to live up to our commitments, we must develop appropriate monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure that those commitments are achieved. We need to make sure that our policies are pertinent and our investments are cost-effective.

Yet I believe this is one of the most important gaps in global nutrition at the moment. We simply do not have ready, reliable access to information on whether our policies and investments are on track to meet our commitments, and national governments have to make hard choices about limited budgetary resources, even though the evidence behind such decisions is often out of date and/or partial.

For these reasons, the EU has embarked on an ambitious and exciting new venture: to support countries’ capacities for nutrition monitoring, learning and reporting. Along with other development partners, we are investing in strengthening countries’ relevant ministries, including agriculture, health and social protection, in several ways: first, by harnessing what already exists in a shared national database; and second, by helping to fill crucial gaps.

Ultimately, we envisage that both quantitative and qualitative data will provide a real-time picture of what’s going on in nutrition, providing answers to questions such as: Where is progress being seen? What investments and programs have helped to bring about that progress? What interventions are likely to be the most cost-effective in helping to reduce childhood stunting?

A key pillar

We are embarking on close dialogue with a number of countries to carefully explore how such an approach could service their specific needs.

National statistics offices are likely to be key to the success of this work, incorporating data from periodic surveys, existing information systems, program monitoring information, and financial tracking of national and international resources.

We will start with a small number of countries and build on the lessons learned to move on to include more countries, especially those committed to nutrition through the SUN movement. Eventually, the network of countries involved will provide a reliable and essential source of information for all the nutrition development community to guide each country's and each partner’s nutrition policy.

This venture — currently called National Evaluation Platforms for Nutrition — is being seen as a key pillar to strengthen national monitoring capacity, and both national and international accountability. At the same time, the EU is also supporting and contributing to other initiatives that will strengthen accountability on nutrition. Most noteworthy are the World Health Assembly nutrition targets, which will be monitored across all countries, developed and developing alike — thus underscoring the truly global dimension of nutrition concerns — and  the imminent launch of the Global Nutrition Report, which will for the first time provide a one-stop-shop for international nutrition data and analyses.

I am truly excited about these recent developments and the leading role the EU has played in helping to bring them about. But I am also conscious that this has been the easier step. The hard part is what comes next, but I think we are ready for that step too.

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About the author

  • Jean pierre halkin copy

    Jean-Pierre Halkin

    Jean-Pierre Halkin is head of the rural development, food security and nutrition unit at the European Commission's EuropeAid. Previously, he spent five years in Ivory Coast as an economic adviser, dealing with a broad portfolio including rural development, value chains and regional trade. Prior to this, he led EU efforts on food security during and after the civil war in Liberia.