06 June 2014

Nutrition Data: Let the Revolution Begin

by Lawrence Haddad and Jo Lofthouse (Director of Nutrition, Children's Investment Fund Foundation, CIFF)

8000 children die every day from fragility that is driven by their undernutrition. In order to intensify and speed up the world’s efforts to make this statistic become a relic, over 94 stakeholders gathered in London one year ago and collectively and publicly committed to "Preventing at least 20 million children from being stunted and saving at least 1.7 million lives by 2020".  

To help track these commitments they called for an annual Global Nutrition Report.

The recent World Health Assembly (WHA) draft progress report (still undergoing review) reported that business as usual will result in an estimated 130 million stunted children by 2025.  The WHA target is 100 million.  Rates of exclusive breast feeding are increasing, which is good news, but the number of women of reproductive age with anaemia is actually increasing (although the rate is slowly dropping-by about half a percentage point per year), under-5 overweight rates are increasing, we currently lack the data to estimate WHA trends in wasting and no-one places too much faith in the low birth weight figures: in other words, we don't even have reliable estimates of how many children are being born malnourished.  

So, some progress on stunting, but we will fall 30 million children short of our goal.  And for the other indicators?  Apart from exclusive breastfeeding we seem to be standing still, going backwards or fumbling in the dark. 

Everyone who cares about eliminating undernutrition globally should feel encouraged by the current high levels of interest demonstrated by a wide range of key players. But interest is not enough.  In development it is fashionable to say “it's not about the money”.  In this case, talk is cheap and money talks. Less than 1% of development resources are allocated to programmes primarily designed to tackle undernutrition, even though it affects one third of all children under 5 on the planet: this investment needs to increase dramatically.  

More money for programming—from national governments and development partners—is necessary but far from sufficient.  We also we need to invest much more in understanding how to spend the money wisely. Without data, we are flying blind.  We don't know where we are going, where we are or what policy levers we are pulling and not pulling.  Preliminary work on the Global Nutrition Report indicates that data on nutrition outcomes, outputs and inputs are scattered and fragmented.  In some areas – for example domestic government spending on nutrition - they are virtually absent.

The High Level Panel Report on the Post 2015 Development Agenda called for a “Data Revolution”. 

The Global Nutrition Report, to be published in November at the ICN2, will bring together existing data from a wide range of data custodians. 

The team working with me on the Global Nutrition Report has been shocked to see how little is spent on nutrition data collection in various agencies. The data experts in these agencies are absolute heroes—they do so much with so little. To their credit the aid donors have spent hundreds of hours working out their nutrition spend, because their systems – and DAC systems – are not designed to monitor it.  Our systems need to change.  This crucial data cannot be provided on a shoestring, with an annual scrabble for information.

Without comprehensive high quality data, we are all in the dark. Our advocacy, research and policymaking risks being unfocused.  If national governments, donors and CSOs cannot track spending and results properly, none of the rest of us can do our job properly.  

Around 4 children have died from undernutrition whilst you’ve read this post: this is scandalous. Let the data revolution begin at nutrition's door.  Now. 

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