New Tools to Help the Hungry and Malnourished

Poor nutrition causes nearly half of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children globally each year – and prevents the minds and bodies of another 165 million children from reaching their full potential. In addition, nutrition is a serious economic issue: experts estimate that undernutrition reduces national economic advancement in Africa and Asia by 8% each year.  Thankfully, we know a lot about what works to improve nutrition, including the fact that intervention must occur during the first 1,000 days of life or damage is irreversible. We also know that addressing nutrition is one of the most cost-effective investments available: for every $1 invested in nutrition, as much as $138 is generated in better health and productivity. 

Last week, following the publishing of a new series on maternal and child nutrition in the medical journal The Lancet , governments, donors, non-profits, academia, and the private sector came together to focus on undernutrition at events in London and Washington, DC.  The events provided an opportunity for the United States and other participants to highlight existing and planned actions to address undernutrition.  US Agency for International Development Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah  highlighted the investments the US Government is making in nutrition as part of the Presidential Feed the Future and Global Health Initiatives: over the three-year period of fiscal years 2012-2014, these investments total $1 billion for nutrition-specific interventions and nearly $9 billion for activities in other sectors that also improve nutrition.  

The US and the UK governments also announced they are seeking partners to launch a Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative this fall to increase the quality, quantity, and timeliness of available data that can help support agriculture and nutrition efforts, and also increase the number and diversity of stakeholders who are applying data-based solutions to improve agriculture and nutrition.  This is an initiative that will be tremendously exciting – if you or your organization is interested in learning more, please visit the initiative website.

As part of these events, and consistent with President Obama’s recent open data mandate, the US Government has specifically committed to make nutrition impact, outcome, and spending data available annually in open and machine-readable formats.  Implementation will take time, but the faster we work with partners to make nutrition data open, the faster we can use improved transparency, efficiency, and partnerships to reach the millions of children who are hungry or malnourished.  I hope other governments and partners will join the United States in this commitment.

It was also great to see ten companies, including US-based PepsiCo, commit to work with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition to form a research and development platform to address global malnutrition.  This partnership has the potential to address unanswered questions in global malnutrition and catalyze investment into affordable, nutritious foods for consumers at all income levels.  From a public health perspective, we hope that investments like these will expand consumer access to and demand for high-quality, affordable, nutrient-dense products to complement breastfeeding for children under the age of two (e.g., fortified porridge) and for adolescents and pregnant women (e.g., nutritious bars or beverages) in low- and middle-income countries.  This is a great example of a high-leverage opportunity for companies and donors to generate new knowledge and have a greater impact by working together, and has the potential to amplify the substantial investments by the US Government in health and nutrition science.

Open data and scientific partnerships are just part of a much broader effort to fight hunger and malnutrition, but they are promising tools for accelerating progress toward this important global priority.

Hillary Chen is Senior Advisor for Global Development at OSTP

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