Nutrition commitments matter, according to 2016 global report

A man holds a brochure on nutrition in Liberia, where the European Union’s humanitarian aid arm and Action Against Hunger fund a nutrition program. What should be the focus of future nutrition commitments? Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

There’s a global economic crisis every year — with malnutrition to blame. Global gross domestic product losses resulting from malnutrition annually are greater than what was lost each year during the 2008 to 2010 financial crisis, according to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report released Tuesday.

This year’s report, an independent annual review of the state of the world’s nutrition, aims to make it easier for governments and donors to make quality, high-impact commitments to combat malnutrition, according to Lawrence Haddad, report co-chair and senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Commitments in general aren’t always viewed favorably — a recent example is the Ebola crisis and the monetary pledges that became nearly impossible to track. Even in non-crisis contexts, those in the global health community call for greater accountability and transparency on the path from pledged funds to delivery or targets to realization.  

May’s World Humanitarian Summit saw a flurry of pledges on its virtual commitment platform, although “there’s almost a complete absence of mechanism to follow up and monitor these and very limited harmonization to make sure they’re framed in a way that can be verified and tracked,” David Loquercio, head of policy, advocacy and learning at CHS Alliance, told Devex in a recent phone conversation.

“The way we approach commitment in the humanitarian sector is the same way Facebook users approach the ‘like’ button,” he added. “It doesn’t commit you to anything, and no one holds you to it.”

But while commitments may be ineffective in other sectors or settings, establishing targets and making progress appear to go hand in hand when it comes to nutrition. In other words, the commitment themselves do matter, according to IFPRI’s Haddad.

One way countries can express their commitment is to set a clear target for reducing malnutrition. After examining a sample of 41 low- and middle-income countries for the 2016 global report, Haddad explained that the rate of stunting — or low height for age, often caused by malnutrition — reduction in the 2000s has a significant correlation with the existence of specific, time-bound nutritional status targets.

The report’s findings also challenge the argument that commitments are easy for businesses to make and not deliver upon. Companies that make stronger commitments to nutrition are also those that have a stronger ability to deliver products, marketing and labeling that support it, according to data from 28 large food and beverage companies reported in the 2016 Access to Nutrition Index.

Even so, it’s not time for the development community to pat itself on the back, Haddad said. Rather, it’s time to increase the scale and ambition for the next round of commitments. Analysis included in the report shows a $70 billion gap globally to meet 2025 milestones for stunting, severe acute malnutrition, breastfeeding and anemia. Government and donor investments must increase by three or four times to meet ambitious goals to eradicate malnutrition based on World Bank analysis of nutrition interventions, Haddad said.

Some national governments have started setting targets related to NCDs — indicating a growing commitment — but they are still in the minority. Only about 30 percent of countries that provided data to the World Health Organization have incorporated targets for obesity, diabetes and salt reduction into their national NCD plans. And about half of the 22 large food and beverage companies surveyed have set targets on salt, sugar and added fats.

Haddad is calling for governments to look at their national budgets, specifically at the money going toward health, education, water and sanitation, and agriculture and look hard to see how much more of this money can be “working hard” for nutrition. Currently, in the 24 countries for which data was available, less than 2 percent of the total government budget is doing that, he told Devex. In some countries, it’s less than 1 percent.

Corinna Hawkes, report co-chair and director of the Center for Food Policy at City University London, is looking for increased commitments on spending for diet-related NCDs and more intensive “double duty actions,” or those that have co-benefits for addressing different forms of malnutrition, like school meal programs that go beyond providing sufficient calories by considering the risks of obesity later in life to include nutritious whole grains, fruits and vegetables as well.

Those plans that benefit people at risk from a micrutionent perspective while also encouraging healthier preferences over the longer term are ones to champion, she added.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.