UK NGOs warn of 'cliff edge' for nutrition funding

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Mother-of-three Hodon Mohamed holds her 10-month-old daughter Mushtaq, outside the nutrition room at a U.K.-funded health center in the Karkaar region of Puntland, Somalia. Photo by: Colin Crowley / Save the Children / DFID / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Campaigners are warning of a “cliff-edge” in U.K. funding for nutrition as concerns mount about “biblical” numbers of people facing acute hunger amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Like other donors, the Department of International Development’s Nutrition for Growth funding runs out at the end of the year, and the agency is being urged to play a leading role by pledging new ring-fenced nutrition funds.

As aid groups scramble to contain COVID-19, malnutrition set to increase

With the pandemic interrupting programs for delivering food and micronutrients to vulnerable populations, experts are warning of disastrous effects in both the immediate and long terms.

Malnutrition has been on the rise in recent years and poses a significant danger to children in particular, stunting their development and weakening their immune systems. In 2019, 135 million people across 55 countries faced acute food insecurity, according to the “Global Report on Food Crises,” up from 113 million people in 53 countries the year before.

Pandemic-related disruption is expected to significantly worsen food supplies and prices, increasing the number of people at risk. Simultaneously, weaker immune systems caused by malnutrition will make people, especially young children, more vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

The pandemic also led to the postponement of December’s Nutrition for Growth Summit, according to a statement by DFID’s Elizabeth Sugg, although this has not yet been publicly confirmed by Nutrition for Growth.

DFID’s main funding cycle on nutrition is tied to Nutrition for Growth and currently finishes at the end of 2020, causing uncertainty among nutrition specialists about how much earmarked funding will be available from the U.K.

“There’s a funding cliff edge,” said Gavin Crowden, director of policy and campaigns at Concern UK.

“The U.K. has often been seen as a leader in nutrition — one of the ways to do that is to make a new pledge for 2021 to 2023, and to do it early, to lead the world and provide positive pressure on other countries,” he said.

An early commitment from the U.K. could be “transformative in building momentum,” according to Aaron Oxley, chief executive at RESULTS, an anti-poverty campaign group. “DFID should continue with their leadership by making a multiyear pledge that starts in 2021 or even earlier because of the extreme need,” Oxley told Devex.

The Global Nutrition for Growth Compact was launched in London in 2013 with the support of U.K. aid. The movement raised $3.4 billion in nutrition pledges at its last summit in 2017.

Experts stressed the importance of nutrition as part of the pandemic response. Lawrence Haddad, executive director at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, likened good nutrition in infants to a “vaccine” against the secondary effects of the pandemic, as it is an essential factor in building strong immune systems and brain development. He argued that cognitive functions will be important in helping to “deal with the secondary effects of the COVID lockdowns as they play out over the coming decade, in terms of better survival rates and better school outcomes.”

“DFID should continue with their leadership by making a multiyear pledge that starts in 2021 or even earlier because of the extreme need.”

— Aaron Oxley, chief executive, RESULTS

Proper nutrition is also “key to unlocking aid impact” — particularly for the U.K. government’s current development priorities, which include child health and girls' education — according to Callum Northcote, senior nutrition policy adviser at Save the Children.

Crowden said NGOs are eager to work with DFID to develop plans to deliver a nutrition response, especially within the context of COVID-19.

While DFID has been a major donor to the international coronavirus response, this has so far lacked a nutrition dimension. Although DFID ministers have acknowledged the importance of nutrition to the response, they have stopped short of saying how it would be incorporated.

Haddad praised the department's nutrition team as “very high quality” but worried that it has “not received the political support it needs from higher echelons in DFID.”

A DFID spokesperson said: “The U.K. is committed to tackling malnutrition in developing countries. We are working through UNICEF to get life-saving supplies to treat acute malnutrition to children across the world, including in the Sahel, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. We are continuing to work with the Japanese government [scheduled to host December’s summit] to make sure the Nutrition for Growth summit is a success.”

Update, May 1: This story was updated to include a comment provided after publication.

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About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process.