Opinion: Going for gold — how to get results at Nutrition for Growth

Gerda Verburg, SUN Movement coordinator and U.N. assistant secretary-general, at the 2019 SUN Global Gathering in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo by: SUN Movement / CC BY-ND

In 2020, with Japan hosting its fourth Olympic Games, chances are that we will be watching something utterly beautiful, as the best athletes in the world accomplish feats never before seen.

In December, Japan will also host the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit, or N4G — which, in many ways, is our Olympics. The last N4G summits were held in Brazil in 2016 and London in 2013 — both with clear links to their Olympic celebrations. The 2020 summit could not happen at a better time for those committed to ending all forms of malnutrition, including the Scaling Up Nutrition — or SUN — Movement.

Previous summits saw countries and organizations “aim high.” In 2013, 15 governments pledged to increase resources for nutrition, with 12 announcing stunting-reduction targets, striving for a payoff of more than 1 million lives saved and stunting averted for millions of children by 2020. However, the action and impact resulting from these commitments have been mixed. Today, just over 149 million children under 5 are still chronically malnourished, and financial investments do not match the need.

The bell has been rung as we enter the “decade of delivery.” With five years to achieve the World Health Assembly nutrition targets and 10 years to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, we must transform how the world tackles malnutrition. And the place to make bold, measurable commitments — N4G — provides a unique opportunity to do so.

Uniting in action

Nutrition is everyone’s business. Nutrition is foundational. It is multisectoral, underpinning all other development initiatives, including climate action. Without improving nutrition, we will not be able to meet the SDGs, nor will we be able to save the planet. Unlike the Olympics, where athletes represent one country or another, we need to break down silos so that all reap the benefits.

We must get the fundamentals right so that systemic improvements are country-owned. The summit will be relevant and memorable if it can contribute to getting results at national and subnational levels and if it is fueled with an outcome-driven, bottom-up approach. We must listen to country voices — especially from those still facing a high burden of malnutrition — and ensure they are central to the discussion, commitments, and subsequent actions.

There is some good news: Just over 80% of SUN countries that pledged in 2013 are on track to meet at least one World Health Assembly nutrition target, and many countries are working hard to deliver on commitments made. Ethiopia and Malawi, for example, have already or are on course to deliver all financial, policy, and programmatic commitments made in 2013. In Malawi, nutrition has been mainstreamed into sectoral budgets, and coverage of community-based nutrition services has been scaled up in all districts at traditional authority and village levels.

In 2013, Zambia stood out as a front-runner for commitments made by civil society and the private sector, with strong results seen in businesses enabling access to affordable and appropriate nutritious foods. And Côte d’Ivoire spoke up and out at N4G, resulting in the validation of the National Multisectoral Nutrition Policy and Plan and the integration of these frameworks into the National Development Plan.

But with only Côte d’Ivoire and Bangladesh, which pledged in 2013, on course to meet their WHA stunting target, and six countries on track to meet their wasting target, we now know who’s at risk of falling behind.

For any results to stick, looking at how nutrition investments have been institutionalized — which can be seen in countries like Burkina Faso — is needed. While both political commitment and momentum are key to make sure nutrition climbs and remains high on the political agenda, this cannot be left to the fleeting and uncertain span of political attention.

Refresh the momentum, succeed in the fight

Now is the time to fight to win. This means making sure we refresh the momentum for nutrition and galvanize commitments from governments, civil society, the private sector, donor agencies, and the United Nations. We need all stakeholders to succeed in the fight against malnutrition, for everyone, everywhere.

2020 is our chance to align behind governments for policy coherence, fill gaps, overcome hurdles, and make the most of synergies between stakeholders to address the multiple forms of malnutrition, including the rapid rise in overweight and obesity, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Countries should follow the lead of Burundi and highlight the difference between food security — or calories — and nutrition security, as misperceptions among decision-makers can lead to confusion and policies that fail to take into consideration the impact of malnutrition on health, well-being, and cognitive development.

We have been training for this moment for a decade. And as the SUN Movement celebrates a decade of progress, we also anticipate the next phase. Alongside the government of Japan, we are hard at work to make sure that N4G commitments — financial and programmatic — are brought to life through systemic and institutional change that is critically needed to reach our goals.

SUN member countries have demonstrated that anchoring nutrition in national laws and broader development plans improve impact. If all stakeholders embrace this ambitious yet realistic approach, I see N4G as a powerful opportunity to put the world on track to combat malnutrition.

This focus area, powered by DSM, is exploring innovative solutions to improve nutrition, tackle malnutrition, and influence policies and funding. Visit the Focus on: Improving Nutrition page for more.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Gerda Verburg

    Gerda Verburg is the SUN Movement coordinator and U.N. assistant secretary-general.