To end malnutrition, we need to adopt a ‘whole child’ approach

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Leadership roles involve many tough choices. After hearing a number of perspectives on many issues, leaders must manage disagreements, seek compromise and make choices about whether or not to take action.

Fortunately, support for nutrition isn’t one of those hard decisions. In May 2016, I proudly stood alongside African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for the launch of the African Leaders for Nutrition, a new group of African heads of state who will commit to champion good nutrition on the continent.

This was a first step in recruiting the kind of global nutrition champions that the people of Africa and their health and prosperity deserve, just as it was a vote for the economic security of our nations.

It’s easy to support nutrition because the evidence is so clear, in terms of lives saved and economic impact. New research released in April by the World Bank, Results for Development, and 1,000 Days concluded that meeting the globally-agreed World Health Assembly targets on nutrition by 2025 would save at least 3.7 million child lives, would mean hundreds of millions fewer women would suffer from anemia, and at least 65 million fewer children would be stunted.

Evidence from the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition gives the economic side of the story: that between 3 and 16 percent of African national GDPs are lost each year to malnutrition, and that for 15 countries included in the economic forecast, meeting just the global goal for stunting reduction (a 40 percent decrease worldwide) would add $83 billion to African economies.

But protecting the good outcomes a child gets from nutrition is about more than just the direct interventions that we know so well; visits to the doctor for pregnant women, vitamin A for infants, and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months after birth. It’s also about working smartly to integrate efforts and take a “whole child” approach to supporting the development of a young son or daughter’s body and brain, ranging from preventing and treating illness, protecting our children from violence, and supporting learning and brain development through play to ensure they are ready for school.

Good nutrition is one important piece of the puzzle we must always be working to put together with the whole package of early childhood development.

Too often, our efforts at supporting young children’s healthy growth and development are divided by sector and fragmented in delivery, so that resources may not be used most efficiently, some efforts are duplicated, and many children miss out on key interventions. This must change.

To get serious about ending malnutrition, we have to get serious about a “whole child” approach. We cannot expect to work as we always have — in parallel programs on the ground, parallel discussions in our Ministry halls, and alone rather than together in our communities — and expect progress to come. We must think creatively in every context about how to build on the progress we have already made and do better for our children — for all children.

In that vein, I was heartened that World Bank President Jim Kim called for a global moment on early childhood development with a focus on stunting.

President Kim will gather finance ministers and other leaders in October at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings in Washington, DC to accelerate progress for children.My hope is that these meetings will do that and more, and that we will have an increasing number of champions for a “whole child” approach like Dr Kim and new commitments to do more for children.

These are the easiest and most important decisions we will make for our future.

Learn more about the African Leaders for Nutrition initiative