On this World Food Day (16 October), there are many pressing issues affecting the state of global nutrition: the impact of COVID-19; food insecurity; and the fact that the UK’s financial commitments for nutrition end this year with no renewal in sight. In light of these urgent challenges, it’s important to highlight the need for nutrition programmes to ensure they are ‘nourishing’ and not just ‘feeding’ people, and to reflect on the political context in which we are advocating for good nutrition.
‘Feeding’ is not enough
Soon after the creation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the UK government announced its commitment to tackle coronavirus and the growing risk of famine in developing countries. An aid package of £119 million, aimed at alleviating extreme hunger for over 6 million people living in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Sahel region, South Sudan and Sudan has been announced. However, with an additional 5 million children’s lives at risk due to the secondary impact of COVID-19 increasing the rate of malnutrition, the UK Government’s response to hunger must also include commitments on nutrition.
The message is loud and clear: good nutrition is not just about eating enough food; it’s about eating the right foods. Feeding alone is not enough. In order to save lives, the UK Government must invest in programmes ensuring that people have sufficient access to nutritious food, as well as access to routine nutrition care services, for the early detection and treatment of malnutrition.
The difference between preventing famine (manifesting in a severe lack of food leading to starvation) and ensuring good nutrition (the ability to reliably obtain, consume and metabolise sufficient quantities of safe and nutritious foods) is important to distinguish. Good nutrition involves both access to an adequate amount and quality of food for longer terms health outcomes. With 820 million people worldwide currently being chronically hungry or undernourished, preventing and tackling famine is therefore an initiative that must go hand in hand with access to food with sufficient nutrients.
To put this in perspective, let’s look at the impact of malnutrition globally:
149 million: This is the current number of children affected by stunting - impaired growth and development caused by poor nutrition.
49.5 million: This is the current number of children affected by wasting - a rapid deterioration in nutritional status leading to low weight for their height.
As if these numbers were not alarming enough, we also know that globally, around 45% of all the deaths among children under 5 years of age are linked to undernutrition. It will come as no surprise to hear that COVID-19 is also worsening the rate of malnutrition worldwide.
The objective of UK Aid
The merger between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development is also inviting us to consider the nature of future international development interventions. The intention of the UK Government to align the aid budget within diplomatic aims, in order to maximise the impact of foreign policy, raised concerns about how Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) will be distributed in the future, and how this will affect the main objective of UK Aid: improving contributions and mechanisms for sustained poverty reduction in marginalised and vulnerable communities.
But asking the UK government to make financial commitments for nutrition is not about calling on the generosity of the country to feed the poorest. It’s about building a new relationship between wealthier nations and developing countries. It is about understanding that filling plates without thinking ahead to more equitable food systems will not lead to a sustainable improvement in people’s lives.
The next opportunity to act
With the likely severe impact of COVID-19 on rates of malnutrition, it is clear that actions from our Government to ensure sustained and predictable investment in nutrition is urgent. The encouraging acknowledgment from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) of the UK Government’s significant achievements in combating malnutrition, and more specifically, in long term decreases in stunting, must not be undo by COVID-19, nor by a lack of funding.
In 2013, the UK hosted the first Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit, leading governments, philanthropists and civil society to raise £17 billion to tackle malnutrition. In 2017, to Government of Japan committed to host the next N4G Summit in Tokyo in December 2020 but COVID-19 has forced its postponement to December 2021. If the UK Government wants to reach its commitments to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (No Hunger) and tackle malnutrition, it should look to pledge in advance of the main summit. Ensuring sufficient financing for nutrition is the most effective way for the UK government to multiply the impact of FCDO’s wider international development ambitions, and to tackle the food crisis exacerbated by COVID-19.