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Nutrition for Growth Summit: Ending Malnutrition or Neo-Colonialism?

We asked a panel of experts what impact the nutrition for growth summit will have on Africa.
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Sorting grain in Niger. Photograph by European Commission DG ECHO.

Before the latest G8 meeting at the start of June, several summits aimed at addressing the prevalence of malnutrition were held in London, culminating in the signing of the Nutrition for Growth Compact. Many pledges were made and several new strategies were devised – from straightforward financial assistance to deeper structural changes in agriculture.

The financial commitments surpassed many expectations, with annual funding set to double to $900m by 2020. However, agreements on a heightened role for private businesses and the use of genetically modified crops have proven to be more controversial, and civil society groups have been vocal in their condemnation – referring to some of the measures a “new wave of colonialism”.

With nutrition and agriculture currently high on the international development agenda, we asked our panel of experts: “What impact will the recent Nutrition for Growth summit have on Africa?”

Aaron Oxley, Executive Director at Results UK:

What was most important for me about Nutrition for Growth was that amongst the 24 governments at the Nutrition for Growth event on 8 June, 17 African governments were represented. While the big focus was on the new amounts of funding pledged from donors, probably more significant was how countries from the Global South came to the table and committed resources and political will to ending undernutrition.

Pledges varied greatly, from Benin’s pledge of $144 million, to Malawi pledging to increase the proportion of the budget allocated to nutrition from 0.1% to 0.3% by 2020, to Ethiopia pledging to give $15 million of domestic resources each year from now until 2020 to tackle undernutrition. Not all pledges were financial though, as many countries made promises to reduce stunting rates (when children don’t reach their full height). Other nutrition issues were also prioritised, with Namibia focusing on increasing rates of exclusive breastfeeding for infants under 6 months of age, and Sierra Leone pledging to increase the number of trained nutritionists by 150%. These pledges matter and show a critical new momentum on undernutrition on the continent

Many countries have ambitious plans, but even after donors came forward with $4.15 billion in new commitments between now and 2020, this is only a small part of the $9.6 billion/year the latest Lancet series concluded was needed in total.

A key piece of the puzzle is the Scaling Up Nutrition movement (SUN) movement that has worked with 40 countries, including 24 in Africa, to develop plans to improve nutrition. Currently 16 of these plans have had their costs calculated, and the Nutrition for Growth event was an important step in filling the funding gaps in these plans. One thing is clear: to fully fund all the plans will take a mix of increases in both donor money and domestic funding, varying by country and over time. Nutrition for Growth was a critical first step but we must maintain this momentum and ensure that ambitious pledges are realised and prevent undernutrition from robbing another generation.

Gareth Jones, Researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety

Recent initiatives to ‘modernise’ African agriculture and reduce hunger and malnutrition, encapsulated by the G8 ‘New Alliance for hunger and nutrition’, have once again raised the issue of hunger in Africa to the forefront of global policy debates.

No-one doubts the fundamental importance of tackling either hunger or nutrition, and it is noteworthy that nutrition has been singled out, both for its devastating impact and as a practical goal to work towards. But any plans to combat malnutrition must, by necessity, be contributed to by a wide range of stakeholders, and over the long-term. There is a large and growing pool of scientific evidence, none more so than the enormous 2008 IAASTD report, that advocates for a shift towards agro-ecology as key to this.

Unfortunately, these latest initiatives connected to the G8 show no sign of having heeded this advice, instead advocating for the spreading of an environmentally and socially unsustainable industrial model of agriculture throughout Africa. Civil society groups across the continent, pointing to a complete lack of transparency and the pervasive influence of multinational agribusiness in their formulation, have castigated these ‘modernisation’ initiatives as ‘a new wave of colonialism’. Countries joining the New Alliance will be expected to facilitate access to land (including communally held land), and enact intellectual property laws around seed which will criminalise age-old agricultural practices among Africa’s peasant farmers, including the saving and sharing of seed.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria:

The Nutrition for Growth summit was clearly the best promotional show the biotech industry could put up and they did well to get political leaders play their game. The sales pitch by the biotech industry that genetically engineered crops hold the key to feeding Africa’s teeming population has so far failed to fly. Nutrition appears to be best way to grab the African market.

The genetic engineering industry has attempted to enhance the nutritional levels of certain crops in the past. The so-called Golden Rice with enhanced vitamin A failed to catch on. Among other reasons, it was found that people would need to eat huge quantities of the rice in order to obtain similar levels of vitamin A that can be obtained by eating a couple of carrots.

Nigeria has field-tested genetically-engineered cassava and similar efforts are ongoing in East Africa on genetically-engineered bananas. The targets of the biotech industry (and their grovelling politician-allies) are the staple crops that people depend on, so that there would be no escaping them. Crops genetically engineered either for nutrition reasons or otherwise pose a wide range of threats – including to biodiversity.

The applause the Summit’s nutrition push received from African politicians spells deep problems for African agriculture and foods. It shows their readiness to make Africa a huge laboratory for experimental crops of dubious safety. It could lead to the negation of safe and sound nutritional practices, where culturally appropriate and acceptable foods are consumed. And it could open the continent to the dumping of food products that could bring unexpected health issues on the continent. Considering the state of our health infrastructure, this is clearly a step that must be resisted. Rather than waste resources importing genetically-engineered crops and foods, or pretending to domesticate those engineered elsewhere, African governments should invest in agro-ecological agriculture and in promoting the right combination of readily available local foods to ensure that the nutritional scam does not take root. Nutrition is not manufactured in the laboratory or factory.

Dr Robert E Black, primary author of the Lancet’s Nutrition Series published prior to the Nutrition for Growth event:

In 2008, I led a team of researchers in publishing a series of papers in The Lancet which identified the 1,000 days of a mother’s pregnancy up to her child’s second birthday as a critical window of opportunity in which good nutrition provides children with a healthy start at life. Children that are well -nourished in their first 1,000 days are healthier throughout their lives; they achieve more in school and earn more as adults. Conversely, malnutrition compromises growth and cognitive development, leaving children unable to attain their full potential.

Our second research series affirms this, showing that malnutrition is responsible for nearly half of all child deaths – 3.1 million each year – with the highest burden seen across Africa and Southeast Asia. We also focused on the opportunities and what proven nutrition interventions – such as breastfeeding and access to vitamins and minerals – can do. Building on the critical 1,000 day window, the evidence also shows that maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy has a significant impact on child health. Nearly one million lives could be saved and stunting could be prevented in 33 million children if these interventions are scaled up to 90% coverage in the 34 countries facing the highest burden of malnutrition.

Yet, to make a difference, this knowledge must be converted into action. In the past five years, progress has been made and nutrition is now on the global development agenda. The Nutrition for Growth Compact calls on governments and organisations to follow the science and put nutrition at the centre of development. At the summit, leaders from 90 countries, businesses, organisations and foundations endorsed the compact and made commitments to help realise its goals. This included pledges from 20 African countries to adopt policies or increase financial resources to improve nutrition. The commitments made at the summit have the potential to change millions of lives and shape a stronger, healthier future for nations across the continent.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

Over the past decade foreign direct investment has tripled across Africa. A growing African middle-class is driving the demand for high-value products, and consumer spending is expected to double over the next ten years. Considering that Africa also has the largest share of the world’s uncultivated land with rain-fed crop potential, small farmers should have the most to gain from these unprecedented opportunities.

But the cruel irony is that those growing the food are often the ones who go to bed hungry at night. Around three-quarters of undernourished people live in low-income rural areas of developing countries. Yet, smallholder farmers, particularly women, may hold the key to feeding the hungry and reducing poverty across Africa. If they are given the right support they can improve their productivity and nutrition, and increase their incomes so that they can feed themselves, their families and their communities.

My message at the Nutrition for Growth summit was that if we are to provide rural people the “right” support, it will need to come from various strategic partnerships, especially with the smallholder farmers themselves. The complexity of nutrition, agriculture and food systems means that collaboration and partnerships are essential, including with the private sector. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has long used its distinct capacity to convene partners to support poor rural people in building the skills, knowledge and confidence they need in order to overcome poverty themselves.

Recently, IFAD has partnered with Canada on its Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture and Rural Development initiative, which will help smallholder farmers to improve the production of nutritious food and promote innovations in nutrition-sensitive agriculture, particularly in Africa.

But no amount of strategic partnerships from outside the continent can promote action and ensure accountability better than those happening inside Africa. Those working on nutrition in Africa can work together through regional initiatives such as NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) as well as draw on global initiatives on nutrition, such as the Scaling Up Nutrition movement (SUN).

As I have often said, the rejuvenation of African agriculture and rural areas must be led from within. This includes developing transparent, accountable and accessible institutions that can provide support to smallholders, as well as promoting domestic and foreign investments in rural areas. Nutrition is a smart development investment and integral to eradicating poverty and hunger, but only if we work in partnership inside and outside of Africa.

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