05 February 2015

From Data Deserts to Fertile Facts: The Delhi Global Nutrition Report Roundtable

Our Indian partners decided to craft the first regional Global Nutrition Report roundtable around the importance of data for accountability and for programme and policy formulation.  The topic is especially relevant for India.  But surely there is a plethora of data on nutrition in India—what are people complaining about?

Think of a big box full of shoes that contains only 3 actual pairs.  Lots of shoes, but only 3 pairs that are useable.  This is the situation with nutrition data in India.  The three pairs of shoes are the 3 NFHS surveys over the time span of 1992-2006.  These are comparable over time (although the excellent presentation from Purnima Menon and Aparna John showed that even the different NFHS rounds are different in term of reference group and people interviewed) and therefore they support intertemporal accountability.  

The lack of trend data in India is a puzzle.  This is the country that leads the world in poverty data collection over time.  For nutrition, we are approaching the 10th birthday of NFHS 3. Soon it will have to be placed in a nutrition data museum!  Pronab Sen, the Chair of the National Statistics Commission, one of our keynotes, said that NFHS 4 was in the field and would be completed by the end of 2015.  Our fingers are crossed.

If anyone ever tells you that data don’t matter, tell them about the politics of malnutrition data in India.  The GoI/UNICEF Rapid Survey of Children (RSOC, reported on in the Global Nutrition Report) is not yet in the public domain, with no official notice of when that will happen or why it has not yet happened.  As Ramanan Laxminarayan of PHFI said, India’s current stunting levels—even if 39% as suggested by the RSOC—represent a historic waste of human potential.   We need data to tell us where this problem is most stubborn so we can act.

Promisingly, there are plans for a National Nutrition Mission. This is a once in a generation chance to launch an “Indian Nutrition Miracle”.  This could be one of the key planks in a future Modi legacy.  For this to happen, the Mission needs to have specific time bound targets (e.g. halve stunting rates in 10 years), it needs to be evidence based (e.g. scale up interventions and actions that top quality research says actually work) and it needs to be accountable (e.g. disclose expenditure levels, monitor performance, identify who is responsible).

There were plenty of ideas from the panelists about how to strengthen accountability for nutrition in India: citizen report cards to support communities to be accountability champions, data journalism to help the media better sift the data, more timely release of data, better use of district data, better use of budget data, clarification of who is responsible for nutrition at different levels, and new approaches and indicators for documenting business conduct in nutrition.

Evidence based facts can be powerful drivers of change and clear signposts for action.  They need to be generated, shared and made usable.  This also requires investments in capacity.  Good quality data  support accountability, and accountability is the glue that connects commitment to action and to impact.

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