“Are we there yet?” my children used to call out from the back seat. Long car journeys could be exhilarating, but they could also be tiresome when the end was not clearly in sight.
Apparently, the same can be true for adults. As development professionals, we have framed recent decades in terms of goals, targets and objectives: collective endpoints. Visions of a desirable future, kept alive by annual progress reports and repeat measures of how well our efforts, resources and attention stay focused on the dream.
It started with Henry Kissinger’s claim that “within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry.” That was in 1974. A decade passed, the dream unfulfilled. A similar goal was set in 1992 atthe International Conference on Nutrition, when 159 states pledged “to reduce substantially within this decade starvation and widespread chronic hunger, and undernutrition, especially among children.” That pledge was concretized at the1996 World Food Summit, which dedicated the international community to “eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.” The time-bound target chosen then was subsequently enshrined (in 2000) as part ofMillennium Development Goal 1.
Which means we have to do a lot better in the post-2015 era. Poverty reduction is good, but it does not suffice where it does not improve equitable distribution. Growth in food production is also good, but it does not suffice when it does not enhance access to the quality diets that lie at the nexus linking agriculture, income, health and nutrition. Inhabitants of low- and middle-income countries increasingly have sufficient food to meet their basic caloric needs, but they still face serious deficiencies in key nutrients because of poor quality foods and uncertain access to the variety and diversity of products needed to sustain sound health and nutrition. Those same countries are simultaneously experiencing a dramaticincrease in non-communicable diseases caused in part by consumption of foods that are energy-dense yet low in essential vitamins and minerals, contributing to an increase inoverweight and obesity. As a result,food-related NCDs — including diabetes and cardiovascular disease — are the fastest-growing causes of adult mortality in countries where undernutrition is the main contributor to preventable child deaths.
Moving forward, it’s essential that post-2015 development agendas pay adequate attention to nutritional compromise in all its forms. This will require the promotion of a range of appropriate multi-sectoral policies that link producers, markets and consumers to sustainable high quality diets. As things stand, the proposedSustainable Development Goals, which have 2030 as the endpoint, do not even mention the words diet or obesity. This has to change.
To achieve the SDGs’ stated aims of ending poverty and ensuring healthy lives, decision makers in the agriculture, food and health sectors must identify and implement nutrition-enhancing policies of many kinds. Many current policies focus on increasing commodity production, making food prices affordable to urban consumers, and encouraging food trade; but there is limited understanding of the impact of these and related policies on nutrition outcomes, particularly among vulnerable groups. There’s an urgent need to assemble and promote empirical evidence that can better inform policy and program designs that contribute to the sustained diet diversity, quality and sufficiency to which all people are entitled. This means focusing onagricultural processes, food systems and family behaviors — not just on achieving single metrics of child growth by a given date.
While the destination, or the goal, we choose is supremely important, the way we get there is perhaps more important still.
Aug. 18, 2014, marked the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.
As an adviser to the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, Patrick Webb provides guidance on evidence based policy. He is a professor of international nutrition at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. His expertise is in food security, agricultural development and humanitarian emergency response.
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