As we approach a key part of the Year of Action on Nutrition, starting with the UN Food System Pre-Summit this week leading to the actual Food System Summit in September, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit in December, engagement by governments is key to mobilising the financial and political commitments required to tackle malnutrition.
Each of these events are important milestones of the Year of Action on Nutrition. The Food System Summit and the Pre-Summit are convened by the United Nations Secretary-General and are set to raise global awareness and explore the needed solutions and actions that transform food systems to resolve hunger and malnutrition. The Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit will be hosted by the Government of Japan and is a global political and financial pledging moment to drive greater action toward ending malnutrition.
A Year of Action with a UK aid cut
In December 2020, the Government of Canada hosted a virtual Nutrition for Growth kick-off event that officially launched the 2021 Year of Action on Nutrition. Donors, including governments, were called to make ambitious pledges to tackle malnutrition, and to engage with some of the major global nutrition events taking place in 2021.
As one of the most respected donors for nutrition, and an owner of the N4G process, the UK Government was invited to give a closing statement at the end of the kick-off event and to participate to the launch of the Year of Action on Nutrition. Despite the call from civil society and nutrition advocates for the UK Government to demonstrate its commitment to tackling malnutrition globally, no pledge, or announcement of future one, has been announced. To see the UK government dropping the ball at such a crucial time for malnutrition is worrying.
In April 2021, we’ve got confirmation that the UK will cut aid budget by roughly a third this year. According to Save the Children, this would mean an 80% cut of the budget for vital nutrition services. And on 13 July, Members of Parliament voted to reject a return to spending 0.7% of our Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) and, instead, adopt a roadmap back to 0.7% for when ‘the fiscal situations allows it’ that essentially locked in the cuts permanently. It means that seeing the UK playing its former leadership role on Nutrition with an ambitious pledge at the N4G Summit is unlikely to happen.
Promoting gender equality and human rights without tackling malnutrition?
In the 2021 Integrated Review, we learned that despite the UK’s ambitions ‘to defend human rights and support vulnerable people’, their goals to tackle food insecurity and end inequalities against women and girls did not include a single word on ending malnutrition.
In RESULTS UK’s recent paper, Malnutrition is Sexist, we explained that malnutrition disproportionately affects women and girls, due to physiological and societal factors. These issues cut across access to health, cultural practices around food and the socio-economic status of women. As a result, more than 1 billion women experience at least one form of malnutrition, with higher rates of anaemia, overweight and obesity than men, and malnutrition is the single largest cause of death among women, including alcohol and tobacco.
In the briefing, we argued that tackling gender inequalities and fighting malnutrition go hand in hand. It means that a variety of interventions and progress across sectors are needed, in order to ensure that nutrition in women and girls is effectively addressed in related development programmes, including within agriculture, education, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), climate change and economic development.
The lack of commitment from the UK Government to continue fighting malnutrition isn’t only a political incoherence set against its stated human rights and gender equality priorities. It’s an incredible waste, which will prevent millions of lives to be saved from undernutrition, and will prevent women and girls from gaining access to education and economic opportunities. And progress against malnutrition will only be achieved with strong political commitments to and increased financing for nutrition programmes that directly target the reduction of malnutrition (nutrition-specific), and those that tackle the underlying causes of malnutrition (nutrition-sensitive).
The Year of Action on Nutrition needs actions!
With these key nutrition summits approaching, the UK Government has many opportunities to act against malnutrition.
The UN Food System pre-summit this week, and the Food System Summit in September will be key opportunities to engage with civil society, nutrition advocates, academia, researchers, and youth organisations to discuss the strategies, policies and financial commitments that are needed to make progress against malnutrition by strengthening food systems globally.
In December, the Nutrition for Growth Summit, hosted by the Government of Japan, will be the culmination of this process, in which the UK Government will be invited to commit to tackle malnutrition with a political and financial pledge. Building on previous N4G Summits, the 2021 N4G Summit also aims to continue strengthening a culture of accountability for commitments made, with the N4G Nutrition Accountability Framework, to ensure action translates into real impact.
But the fight against malnutrition cannot be pursued if one of the major donors to N4G doesn’t join the efforts of other countries. There isn’t time to wait until ‘the fiscal situation allows it’. Even with a carefully planned roadmap back to spending 0.7% in UK ODA, malnutrition will continue to cost millions of lives. If the UK Government is serious about tackling poverty, promoting gender equality and championing human rights, nutrition must be at the heart of these promises, backed up by a financial commitment by the end of 2021.