02 December 2014

Do We Really Need a Nutrition Data Revolution? Um, Yes.

The just released Global Nutrition Report makes the case for a “Nutrition Data Revolution”.  

Data collection, storage and analysis costs money – so why do we need to invest in it?  Consider a few facts from the Report:

  1. 49% of 193 countries lack the data to be able to track if they are on or off course for even 4 of 6 World Health Assembly (WHA) indicator targets.  And these targets were set nearly 3 years ago.
  2. 40% of the most recent child growth surveys (anthropometry) are over 5 years old.  Economic policymakers could not run their economies on data that were over 5 years old—why would nutrition policymakers think they could?
  3. For the WHA indicator that shows least progress--anaemia in women of reproductive age—we have the weakest data. How can we reduce anemia if we do not have a good sense of who is most affected and when and where progress is greatest.
  4. There is no Global Database on Food Consumption.  For hunger data we rely on food supply data, heroically adjusted by FAO, but still with severe limitations.   We cannot even measure individual trends in the most immediate manifestation of malnutrition: hunger.
  5. Data on nutrition intervention coverage is very sparse. For example, only 37 countries have data on all five of the nutrition interventions and practices with the most extensive coverage data.  We know that increased coverage will reduce stunting and yet little attention is paid to monitoring that coverage.
  6. We know how important the first 1000 days post conception is for nutrition status throughout the lifecourse and yet data on weight at birth is so poor, the Global Nutrition Report could not even report trends in low birth weight.

What to do?  Invest in data collection and in building the demand for data collection.  And while they interact, the first is easier than the second.  Globally the data priorities are reflected in the points above: food consumption, anaemia, low birth weight, and nutrition programme coverage.  Nationally, the priorities will need to be set by national stakeholders.   

How can we convince funders to invest in data? A 2012 independent evaluation of the ESRC’s UK Data Service estimated that the return on investment to the research community alone range from 2.5: 1 to 10:1.  If we believe that research has wider benefits then the return on investment to wider society will be very large indeed. 

How to stimulate the demand for data?  We must promote accountability.  The more accountable public officials are for programme coverage, spending money wisely, and reducing malnutrition the more they will demand data and evidence.  Accountability can be strengthened by civil society working with the media, researchers and champions within public agencies to identify, track, assess and publicise commitments made (or not made).

So more data needs to be demanded and supplied, but do we really need a revolution?  Absolutely.  We need a marked change in our attitude to data.  The data systems we have designed are stuck in the 20th century and don’t respond to the information demands of the mobile technology age nor take advantage of its possibilities.

Information is power and power shapes information.  Until nutrition data collection and availability are revolutionised, nutrition data cannot be democratised.  And without democratisation of nutrition data it remains too easy to ignore malnutrition--unless you happen to be one of the 2-3 billion people suffering from it.  
(Note: This blog first appeared on the blog site of the British Medical Journal)


Carlo Cafiero said...

Hi Larry,

you say: "There is no Global Database on Food Consumption. For hunger data we rely on food supply data, heroically adjusted by FAO, but still with severe limitations. We cannot even measure individual trends in the most immediate manifestation of malnutrition: hunger."

Apart from thanking you for the "heroically" (is it supposed to be a compliment, right? Indeed FAO statistics does miracles in filtering out relevant information from existing sources to produce an annual assessment on so many countries in the world) I want to ask you:

Do we really need actual detailed individual food consumption data on a frequent basis? As you know, these are awfully costly to be collected with the needed precision to conduct nutritional assessments.

Wouldn't it be wiser to keep that for periodic, longer term inquiries and focus on the FIES indicators of the severity of food insecurity, as far as the regular annual monitoring is concerned?
After all, identifying where people struggle more to get their food will give us already pretty good hints on where it may be necessary to deepen our analysis and direct intervention to prevent malnutrition.

Lawrence Haddad said...

Hi Carlo, and yes heroically is a compliment!

I don't know if we need individual food intake data or hh food access data--I think that is an empirical question as well as a practical one.

But I am convinced that we need more than undernourishment and Voices of the Hungry--both these are important, but don't quite get at what we most care about--objective measures of whether households have enough to eat.. best, Lawrence