Q&A: World Food Prize laureate Nabarro on nutrition and conflict

Dr. David Nabarro, World Food Prize laureate. Photo by: Simon Ruf / UNMEER / CC BY-ND

DES MOINES, Iowa — Dr. David Nabarro first saw what war did to children while working with Save the Children in northern Iraq in 1974. During the conflict between the Iraqis and Kurds, he provided medical services to Kurdish children who struggled to receive proper nutrition amidst the fighting.

Decades later, Nabarro plans to use his platform as a 2018 World Food Prize laureate to continue advocating for the most vulnerable casualties of war.

Nutrition gets a moment at the World Food Prize as global hunger rises

As global hunger is on the rise, Lawrence Haddad and Dr. David Nabarro won the 2018 World Food Prize for their work in elevating the importance of nutrition within the first 1,000 days of life.

“If I have one thing I’d like to do while I’m still able to influence people, it is to say that the creation of malnourished societies through warfare is at least as bad as killing them with guns or with other destructive measures,” Nabarro said.

Nabarro shared the $250,000 prize with Lawrence Haddad, an economist who was also recognized for his work in elevating the global nutrition agenda. Nabarro’s early career included work with NGOs, teaching, and service with the British government. In 1999, he joined the World Health Organization and in 2010 he became the first coordinator of the United Nations Scaling Up Nutrition movement.

Nabarro sat down with Devex following his World Food Prize win to discuss how conflict has an adverse impact on child nutrition and the troubling rise of obesity as a form of malnutrition.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How do we address hunger and malnutrition caused by conflict?

All famine is human-made. We just do not see famines that are actually primarily the result of lack of food — even in Yemen food is available if you’ve got money to buy it. What we’re actually seeing happening — either deliberate or perhaps accidental, but I think usually deliberate — is the withholding of food as an instrument of war. That’s happened for years.

Unfortunately, that habit doesn’t seem to be very effective. Instead, during war, you get high levels of malnutrition and mortality, but that doesn’t seem to hasten the end of conflict. Why? Because the people who are suffering are women and children, not the men.

“The creation of malnourished societies is an injustice, is itself an act of violence that is causing damage that is just going on for too long.”

— Dr. David Nabarro,  2018 World Food Prize laureate

I’m very pleased that in the [U.N.] Security Council, we found that the Netherlands and three other countries articulated a resolution on conflict and hunger. I still am fearful that those who are forces behind conflict are currently impervious to the damage they’re doing to future generations, so even if they win the war they don’t win the peace.

How do you make people understand how widespread that impact is?

Clamor. That means making a noise, but making the noise in a very deliberate way. It’s a very simple story, the damage caused by this kind of warfare. Blockading ports to prevent the import of food has to be made unacceptable. It has to be a cross-party issue. And it has to be one that reaches every single legislator that has the chance to influence what is going on.

Q&A: World Food Prize laureate Lawrence Haddad on how to 'clamor' for nutrition

Lawrence Haddad sat down with Devex to talk about why nutrition is a diplomacy and defense issue, and how he’s going to use his platform as a laureate to promote the global nutrition agenda.

It needs to be in individual nations. But it also needs to be in the only global governance body we’ve got, the United Nations, and primarily at the Security Council level. It’s not fair to say issues like nutrition and health should be kept out of the Security Council because it just deals with acts of violence and their management. The creation of malnourished societies is an injustice, is itself an act of violence that is causing damage that is just going on for too long.

As a World Food Prize laureate, what will you do to continue your work on nutrition?

One is to make certain that we do have nutrition right at the center of all work to develop food systems all over the world. And that means connecting people working on health, on agriculture, on education, on women’s affairs, so that they see this as an issue that has to be joined together and done in a most effective way. Winning this World Food Prize just a wonderful opportunity to do that.

I want everybody to understand that, at the moment, one-quarter of all deaths in our world are related to inappropriate diets, particularly excess consumption of sugar, fat, and salt, leading to an epidemic of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The only way to deal with this is by prevention, and prevention requires the whole of society.

What is the link between malnutrition and obesity?

Obesity may be more likely to develop after undernutrition in the uterus, so I’m very keen not to say that these are radically different problems. We’re seeing in some countries that you’ve got obesity and undernutrition occurring together, particularly in Southeast Asia, parts of Africa, and Latin America.

I would quite like people to appreciate that these forms of malnutrition, whether it’s undernutrition or excess, which affect one-third of the world’s population, are still part of same challenge which is that making sure that food systems help people to be well nourished and healthy.

How is climate change impacting proper nutrition?

It is a remarkable marker of the human condition: You get forms of malnutrition associated with war but also you get rising levels of malnutrition associated with the volatile weather that we’re seeing these days.

I’m careful about the term climate change. It creates some strange emotions and denial in the minds of some people, but everybody knows that weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable all over the world in the form of drought and of extreme events like hurricanes and typhoons.

“You get forms of malnutrition associated with war but also you get rising levels of malnutrition associated with the volatile weather that we’re seeing these days.”

These realities are here now. Nobody should think that this phenomenon of changing climates is something that is downstream, that we perhaps have got time to deal with because it’s not with us now.

If you’re in a country that’s just off the coast in the Caribbean, like Haiti or the Dominican Republic,  this is a reality now. It’s only going to get worse. Because even if we are able to get countries to come together to resolve the challenge of changing climate, to treat it as the global emergency that it is, we’ve got 10, 20, 30 decades of increasing bad weather that we’ve got to deal with and this will play straight through to nutrition.

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About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.